LOUISVILLE, Colo. — When Jill Sellars saw smoke on the horizon the day before New Year's Eve last year, she didn't think much of it. When she saw it was a wildfire, moving fast toward her neighborhood, her dog Peanut was all she thought about.
Sellars tried to make it home to save Peanut, but the fire beat her there.
"Later we learned that it went up so, so fast," she said, but that doesn't erase the pain she feels. "That’s the hardest part for everybody. It’s not our stuff. We can replace all of our things, but you cannot replace your pets."
Hundreds of other families also lost dogs and cats in the fire. A new study from CU Boulder estimates 1,183 pets perished. Researcher Leslie Irvine used public records and population estimates to find the staggering toll.
"Even those people who worked in the area and tried to get their homes found that when they got to their neighborhoods they were barricaded or they couldn’t even get close," she said. "The inability to return home was very, very frustrating for a lot of people."
Body camera video from the day of the fire showed first responders rescuing some dogs and other officers forced to turn away frantic homeowners trying to make it past barricades to rescue their furry friends.
"People will endanger their lives to rescue their pets," Irvine said, adding her research after Hurricane Katrina showed the importance of including pets in planning for when disaster strikes. "Animal problems are people problems."
She recommends pet owners make friends with their neighbors -- and provide the neighbors with the tools to rescue pets in case they're not able to rescue the animals themselves when a disaster happens.
Sellars said she had such a plan, but the fire just moved too fast for her neighbors to help rescue Peanut.
"He was just the best. He made us laugh every single day," she said. "He was part of our life, like he was literally part of us. It was sort of an extension of my husband and I."
She has a new dog -- Penny -- whom she adopted by happenstance the day of the fire. Her father died the night before the fire began and Penny was his dog.
"We adopted each other," she said. "The day of the fire, my dad passed away so she lost her person, we lost our dog so we have each other."
Louisville plans to build a Marshall Fire pet memorial at Davidson Mesa dog park in the coming months. Sellars supports the project because it means Peanut will never be forgotten.
"For a lot of us, this has been the hardest part," she said. "And to have a way to memorialize our pets and never forget them, I just really appreciate it."
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