With the impending arrival of our Indian Summer typical of Autumn in Southern California we have an added concern -- wildfires. Though usually we don’t see the severe firestorms until later in the year due to Santa Ana conditions blowing across our dry, crisp brushland, it’s never too early to learn how to be alert, be aware and know what to do when disaster strikes.
Since I can remember, fire is one of the things I am most frightened of. Magnify that with the potential for having to get my horses to safety when threatened by a nearby fire and you have a recipe for pure terror. So, to ease my mind, I want to be sure I have a plan in place long before it’s needed, with the hope that it won’t be needed at all.
I’m one of those people who can detect and sense smoke long before I see flames. Thankfully, we also live in an area where a major fire that destroys homes by the dozen is highly unlikely. If I do spot an area burning in the distance, my first action is going to be pinpointing it’s exact location in proximity to where we are. Once I’ve talked to the Fire Captain at our local fire station and have gauged the direction of the burn versus how quickly it could spread our way, we’ll start making plans to move horses to a safe zone some miles away.
Let me stop here and preach for a moment. If your horse is not well trained when it comes to getting in the trailer, especially under the most stressful of situations, that is where you MUST begin. No excuses, it is vital to be sure your horse can be loaded quickly and without hassle, because otherwise he may be left behind when it’s time to evacuate. This is a life and death situation! I have written about this topic before, however I'll be digging it out of my archives for a reposting here in the future.
Be sure you have chosen your evacuation location well in advance of any situation you may need to evacuate for, and definitely thoroughly discuss all your options. There are generally two choices you’ll have -- a public facility or a private one. If you know of a boarding facility that has room for your horses in the event of a fire, or you’ve got a friend who has the facilities where you can take your horse(s), make contact as soon as possible -- or better yet, have a standing agreement -- so you can make arrangements, to let them know you’re on your way so they can prepare a stall with a fresh water supply.
Never, EVER wait to load up and leave until the last minute when mandatory evacuation orders are coming in from the authorities. By then, you’ll be lucky to have enough time to be sure you can get yourself, your family and a few valuables out of harm’s way. Over and over we have seen this. Start early, don’t get trapped...if in doubt, take them out. DON’T WAIT!
Don’t worry about feed or any extras in the beginning, just hook up the trailer, halter your horse and load him. If you must travel through an area of active fire in order to get to safety, DO NOT have any hay or shavings in the trailer (they can catch fire from the smallest sparks or embers) and hose the horse down before loading.
It’s also a good idea to have identification on your horse during the evacuation process in case somehow, for some reason, there is a need to evacuate the place you’ve evacuated him to. I like the cattle ear tags you can find at most feed stores, and they can be attached to the halter with a zip tie. Using a permanent marker, put the horse’s name, your name, all your phone numbers (including emergency contacts), along with any feed or other allergies your horse has on them, you can also have your address written down. Then leave the halter on the horse snugly (this will always depend on if the location your horse is in is safe to do so, otherwise buckle the halter to the gate but include identifying information about the horse on the tag, such as color, markings or any brands).
After your horse is safe, and you’ve gotten yourself, your family and your important belongings safely moved somewhere not in danger, then worry about bringing feed for the horse. You also want to make certain there is someone present at all times who knows horses and can be reached in case you need to.
Here are a few additional (some repetitive) tips to help make evacuations go smoothly and how you can assist others in evacuating their horses:
What you may find, and suggestions as to what to do. Horses locked in - Bolt cutters, wire cutters, hammers, gloves. Horses not trained to load - Do what you know. Bring ropes, whips, flags, extra people. Do not tranquilize unless you are qualified. If you can’t get them in a reasonable length of time, leave them. It has to be like triage. Get the ones you can. Send stock trailers if possible for horses not trained to load, then load through a gate from a pen, stall, panels, or in a corner. Horses already gone - Make a note of time, place, anything else pertinent and keep moving.
People being indecisive about going - Hugs, reassurance, leave your phone number and get the horses out. Keep up the mantra “better safe than sorry”. Discuss danger/consequences of road closures, trees across roads. No halters/leads, no extra ropes - Bring as many as you can, different sizes. Crowded roads - Don’t go to haul horses unless you know exactly where you are going. TAKE MAPS. Tell looky loos to go home. Drive slowly and carefully no matter what is going on. Safety considerations - Don’t go alone. Take flashlights, sharp knife, twitch, animal first aid supplies, animal marking crayons, polaroid or disposable camera, notebook and pens, and again MAPS. Identification, record keeping - There may be animals that end up in big groups, or to places with many, even hundreds of animals. Don’t think you’ll recognize them for sure. They should be marked with livestock crayon, like they use for endurance rides, available at many feed stores. You can attach tags to halters, or braid tags into forelocks, top part of mane, or top part of tail. Spray paint can be used in an emergency, maybe a phone number. Keep a notebook with where the animal came from, a thorough description including any brands (look under lips and manes for tattoos and freeze marks), any notations about injuries, or special care needs, and where the animals went. Take digital or disposable camera pictures from the front and both sides if possible.
In the aftermath - People housing animals may need stall cleaning help, supplies, buckets, feed, etc. Try to examine and temp anything that looks sick, isolate if possible. There may be many helpful groups of volunteers -- be sure they are supervised properly to prevent accidents and escapes. As early as possible, make things clear between owners and people housing animals. Unfortunately there sometimes can be big board bills presented by some barn owners to evacuees after it is all over. Make sure expectations are clear and upfront.
For people: Cell phones, land lines overloaded - Try to stay off phones. Get all info in first call. Write everything down. People away from phones - Make a whole plan, share all contact info when you first talk to them. Road closures - Take maps even if you know the area (this cannot be stressed enough). It’s going to look very different, and usual routes may not be available. DON’T go in if you aren’t sure you can get out. Fire engines won’t even do that. Smoke - It’s probably worse than you think. Take particle masks, inhalers if you’ve ever used one, and just don’t go if you asthma or any other breathing problems. Human needs - Take LOTS of water, snacks, toilet paper, first aid supplies, flashlights, good boots and gloves, extra glasses, fully gassed vehicles. You may need to be out there a lot longer than anticipated. Emergency mode makes us ignore our own needs, but this could go on for many days. We need to take care of ourselves to be able to be of service!
These tips are tried and true, what we have used in evacuation efforts for years, though no two fire events are the same. Every year we hope there will be no need for evacuations and that it will be a quiet one fire-wise. But you never know, and that's why being vigilant as well as having a plan in place is so vitally important.
Keep yourself, your family and your horses (all animals) safe! Fire season is upon us.