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While human safety is firefighters' No. 1 priority, they work to save pets, too

The Lechocki family of Sugar Grove knows how stressful it is when a house fire breaks out. And that stress is compounded when a four-legged family member is still inside.

The attic of their home started on fire after it was struck by lightning in June 2011. Christina Lechocki said her husband, Jeff, and two children, Elliot, 8, and Abigail, 6, were in the basement waiting out bad weather when they heard an explosive sound, followed by smoke detector alarms.

The family got out of the house, but their cat, Wilson, still was inside. When it was safe enough for firefighters to re-enter the home, they were able to find Wilson underneath a couch on the first floor.

"It was very much out of the movies," Christina Lechocki said. "[The firefighter] was carrying the cat in his arms, Wilson was yowling. He brought him to me, and I took him to the neighbor's so the kids could hug and pet him, and calm him down as well."

When there's a fire, emergency responders work to save not only families, but family pets whenever they can. Many local fire departments have special equipment, such as oxygen masks, that fit better around a dog's snout or come in smaller sizes.

Firefighters stress that life safety is the No. 1 priority when fighting a fire, and they say that homeowners never should go back into a home to try to rescue a pet. If it's safe enough for firefighters to enter the home and look for a family pet, they will do their best, Sugar Grove Fire Chief Marty Kunkel said.

He said the fire at the Lechocki home was one of those examples. Because most of the fire was contained in the attic, and Wilson was on the first floor, firefighters were able to rescue him.

"That's exactly one of those situations," Kunkel said. "When all your heat and smoke is up [in the attic], conditions to re-enter and look for animals – it's very easy to do."

Battalion Chief Shawn Stephens with the Batavia Fire Department said it's fairly common to encounter pets during fires. He said he's had to use oxygen masks on two occasions, once for a dog and once for a parrot. He said when those fires occurred, firefighters didn't have access to the specialized oxygen masks like they do today, so he had to use regular oxygen masks.

"They're so much better," he said about the new pet oxygen masks, which were donated to the department last summer. "These are the newest things out there, and they're designed to fit and work a whole lot better. ... It's one of those things we carry in the back with our equipment that we hope we never have to use."

But sometimes it's not always a fire situation that calls for a pet rescue. Lt. Ralph Strange with the Batavia Fire Department said firefighters recently rescued some baby ducks that had fallen into a manhole grate while crossing a street. St. Charles Fire Chief Joe Schelstreet said firefighters have rescued pets, mainly dogs, from thin ice situations, which can be just as dangerous as re-entering a house fire.

"We have had a fatality because someone had tried to rescue a dog that fell through the ice," Schelstreet said. "It's a very dangerous situation, and it highlights not only the ice, but trying to go back into a house and how dangerous that can be, as well."

To help emergency responders, some homeowners opt to apply stickers to their front doors indicating that they have pets in the home. Kunkel said firefighters don't give much credence to those stickers because they don't know how old they are, or if it was placed by the current homeowner. But Stephens said that can be helpful, especially if the number of pets is listed.

During the stressful situation, Christina Lechocki said knowing that the family pet was safe was a big relief, especially for her children.

"I knew how traumatic it was for the kids to go through that event, and it was such a relief that we were all going to be OK."

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