FAIRBANKS—It wasn't the classic cat-in-the-tree rescue call, but University of Alaska Fairbanks firefighters did save a dog stranded on the Chena River ice on Wednesday afternoon.
Firefighters in wetsuits crawled through overflow on top of thin ice with an inflatable raft to reach the dog and were able to haul her back without falling through.
The dog, which Fairbanks North Star Borough Animal Control manager Sandy Besser described as "some kind of a pitbull/boxer/heeler mix," had been standing out on the ice for about three hours just downstream from the University Avenue bridge when the animal shelter received a call from someone at the Best Western Chena River hotel around 1:30 p.m. The hotel sits on the south bank of the river.
"The caller could see the dog out on the ice from the window and said it was running back and forth and couldn't get off the ice," animal control officer Kiffiny Bailey said.
Bailey drove over to the west side of town to investigate and found the dog standing on ice in the middle of the river. On the south side of the ice the river was wide open and on the north side of the ice there was overflow on top of the ice. The dog, a female, wouldn't come to Bailey when she tried calling it.
"She didn't want to step in that water," Bailey said of the overflow. "I contemplated (walking out to get the dog), but I said, 'I don't trust this.' "
So Bailey called the University Fire Department knowing they had the equipment to do water rescues. Dressed in wetsuits, firefighters Jerry Phillips and Charles Renner crawled out onto the ice dragging an inflatable raft in the event they broke through. When they reached the dog, Renner scooped her up in his arms and loaded her onto the raft. They then crawled back to shore while other firefighters towed the raft with a rope.
Battalion Chief Pat Mead said the situation provided a good training exercise for firefighters, who approached the rescue the same way they would for a person.
Bailey later found out the dog had escaped from a car parked at Fred Meyer West across Airport Way. The person watching the dog for the owner had left it inside her locked, idling vehicle while she went into the store. When she came out, one of the windows of the still-locked vehicle was down and the dog was gone. The dog evidently hit the power window switch, rolling down the window and allowing it to jump out. That was at about 10 a.m., Bailey said.
Bailey isn't sure how the dog got out on the ice, but since it wasn't wet and didn't appear to swim, it probably walked out onto the ice farther downstream and walked up the river. The thickest ice was in the middle of the river, Bailey said.
It's not uncommon for dogs left in vehicles to open windows or lock doors by hitting power switches that are unlocked, Besser said.
"What we see happen quite often with automatic window openers is dogs will jump up and down and all of a sudden the windows are down or the car is locked," she said. "This fall we had a guy get locked out of his car because his dog locked the doors as soon as he got out of the car.
"The dog wasn't quite so good about opening it again," Besser said.
The rescued dog, which Besser described as "very sweet," was still at the animal shelter on Friday. Both the dog sitter and owner had been notified that the dog was at the shelter but nobody had come to pick it up yet, Bailey said. She said she didn't know why the owner or caregiver hadn't come to get the dog.
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.