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EVACUATION TIPS FOR WILDLAND FIRES

It used to be that the California was known as the state that held its collective breath every summer, waiting for the onslaught of wild land fires. With the effects of climate change being felt throughout the country, wild land fires are becoming commonplace in areas as diverse as Florida, Montana, Oklahoma and Canada. Even the soggy northwest is not immune. What was a regional issue is now a national concern.

While California horse owners have learned how to live with the threat, the rest of the country is just waking up to the very real possibility that they, too, could be affected.

From north of Los Angeles, south to San Diego, and east into the desert, neighborhoods have organized evacuation plans, complete with "Standard Operating Procedures" or "SOPs" to delegate responsibility for transporting, identifying, feeding, treating, bedding, and housing horses and other large animals. The Alta Loma Riding Club, for instance, has an excellent set of SOPs they are willing to share with other horse groups. Veterinarians, feed companies, humane agencies, and emergency responders all work together to provide the safest, least stressful environment for animals who need to be removed from their homes. Being this organized and elaborate means many meetings between horse owners and agencies, well ahead of the event, so everyone works together using the same language and under the same rules. (You'll find it at ALRC)

Not every area needs to be as organized as Southern California where wild land fires are a way of life. The most important thing you can do to help ensure the safety of your horses is to be prepared. Unfortunately, local governments move slowly in setting up protocol for such events. That should not stop you from acting. By organizing the horse owners in your area, developing a plan of evacuation that suits your needs, then sharing your plan with your local emergency personnel, you will be well on your way to protecting your animals in a multitude of disaster scenarios.

Here are some simple animal evacuation procedures to consider:

  • Meet with fellow horse owners. Develop a phone tree and protocol for using it.
  • Develop a plan for your area and share it with your local emergency personnel.
  • Set up evacuation routes and holding areas.
  • Make sure the local veterinarians are aware of the plan.
  • Your vehicle should always have sufficient fuel. A half tank should be considered empty.
  • Make sure your horses are trained to load in all weather; all conditions.
  • During the incident, stay off the phone as much as possible. Leave lines open for emergency calls.
  • Load the horses early and let them sit. Follow exit orders from your coordinator.
  • Don't go to the evacuation area until you are told to do so.
  • Radio your route out and radio when you reach your destination. Everyone in your plan should have a family service radio, and at least some of you should be ham radio operators. Practice this!
  • When you reach the evacuation area, face your trailer to the exit. Offer water to your horses if you're sitting over two hours.
  • When you reach your destination, wait for directions. Wear your helmet if and when you unload animals; use extreme caution. Your adrenaline level will project to your horses.
  • If you are expecting emergency trailers at your property, secure your dogs with leashes and put them (and other small pets) in your car. Pack your car while you're waiting. No pet stays home!

Your trailer should have a " disaster kit" that is part of every trip. These items can be kept in plastic containers and secured to the wall of the tack area. Here is a sample of items you will want to include. Everyone's kit will be different, depending on your own preferences.

  • Maps
  • A Toolbox with wire fence cutters, crow bar, knife, hoof pick.
  • Extra halters and lead ropes
  • Whip and stud chain
  • Towels to cover horses' eyes
  • A blanket or sheet
  • Buckets, feed, and water.
  • Water for personal drinking and first aid needs.
  • First aid kits for vehicle, humans and animals
  • Your horses' personal disaster kits, including I.D. sheets for each horse ( download free from Red Jeans Ink), copies of prescriptions, and important documents concerning your horses, such as Coggins Certificates and Bills of Sale.
  • Flashlights and batteries, including headlight.
  • Money ( change as well as bills).
  • Phone numbers of your coordinator, friends and family, vets.
  • Wear gloves, sturdy shoes, and take a coat, rainwear, goggles, N-95 masks. Do not wear synthetics. Take extra clothes and shoes.

It may be that you live in an area without a horse group or interested horse owners. What can you do? Much of the above can work for individuals as well as groups. It's a bit tougher to do the preliminary legwork yourself, but you'll be happy you did when you need to evacuate.

Take a look around your property and then your neighborhood. Perhaps you pasture your horses on acreage. If so, you may not need to evacuate them. There is always the concern that you will not be let back into the area once you leave, so take this into consideration. Can your horses safely fend for themselves for a couple of weeks? If they lose their water source, do they have another?

Katrina taught us some very painful lessons about being optimistic in returning to disaster areas.

There are ways to prepare for disasters ahead of time. Don't get caught short and risk losing your horses.