TRACY -- A local animal rescue group is making sure that firefighters are prepared to aid family¿ pets, as well as residents, in case of fire.

Animal Rescue of Tracy has purchased a set of oxygen masks that will work for Rover or Fluffy.

"We think these masks are a great idea," said Kim Francis with Animal Rescue. "We purchased a kit for Engine 94 in honor of their rescue of a border collie this past June. They pulled the dog out of the California Aqueduct after the dog had got stuck and was unable to climb out.

"We know these pet masks will be invaluable to the department and could help save lives in the event of a future rescue, fire or disaster," she said.

Animal Rescue bought the kit for $70 through the Havanese Club of Northern California.

Unconfirmed figures put the number of U.S. pet deaths by fire at tens of thousands each year. Home fires account for about 80 percent of all fires.

Animal groups are hopeful the high number of pet deaths will soon decrease with the addition of pet oxygen mask kits being outfitted to more fire engine companies across the nation. The kits contain 3 cone-shaped masks, in small through large sizes, that are designed to fit over an animal's snout area and hook up to the oxygen tanks already carried by fire personnel.

"I think this is a great opportunity for the department," said Tracy Fire Captain Jim Haskell who was one of the firefighters who pulled the dog out of the aqueduct, along with Fire Engineer Lisa Bachar.

"Occasionally we do come across animals trapped in houses that we've rescued during fires. Often animals hide in the home and suffer smoke inhalation and have the same respiratory problems as humans," he said. "These pet masks will allow us to provide that assistance to a furry friend in need."

Elaine Cirimele, president of the Havanese Club of Northern California, said her club is selling the mask sets as a public service.

"When there is a fire, the firemen don't have the right equipment for the pets. These masks have already helped in some areas, and the more kits we can get out there means even more lives saved," she said.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, there are 30,165 fire departments nationwide, but there are no statistics available on how many fire engines carry pet oxygen masks.

For more information on the oxygen mask kits, visit www.thehcnc.com. For more information on Animal Rescue of Tracy, visit www.animalrescuetracy.org.

Reach correspondent Anne Marie Fuller at annemarietv@juno.com.