Horses and Fire

Fire can be both friend and foe in nature. While fire can do extensive damage to the environment, the damage is often short-lived and the long-term benefits outweigh short-term problems as new vegetation springs forth to populate the landscape. For animals, including horses, fire's short-term effects can be deadly. If they are caught in the middle of a conflagration, it can cost them their lives.

In the devastating Yellowstone National Park fires of 1988, for example, the recorded death toll was as follows: 345 elk, 36 deer, 12 moose, six black bears, and nine bison. Those, however, are only the carcasses that were counted within the greater Yellowstone area. There likely were more bodies that were never discovered.

There was little or no loss of domestic livestock due to the fires that year, mostly because the fires were burning in uninhabited wilderness areas. However, as will be related later, there was the potential for human as well as equine deaths involving this writer and a trail riding group when one of those fires hit full stride.


When the fires of fall 2003 devastated parts of California, domestic livestock, including horses, were injured and killed. Some of the injuries and deaths were caused by the fire and smoke inhalation, and some were indirectly related to the fires, such as a horse suffering a broken leg when kicked by another in a holding area away from the fire danger. Other horses were injured in trailer accidents during evacuation.

It is difficult to determine just how many horses were killed in those California fires, says Terry Paik, DVM, of El Cajon, Calif. (in San Diego County). Paik, who has retired from active veterinary practice, worked with California officials to determine the extent of loss to the animal population of San Diego County. Not all equine deaths were reported, he explains, with some owners merely disposing of dead animals without telling anyone.

There also were instances where owners apparently decided the fires provided an excellent excuse to abandon their animals, and some were left unclaimed at shelters. At one point at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club (just north of San Diego in Del Mar), some 250 horses were listed as strays--owners unknown. Ultimately, the majority of horses in the area were reunited with owners.

An estimate of the death toll, Paik says, is that some 50 horses, 20 cows, and 10 goats were killed by fire in San Diego County. It is also estimated, he adds, that about 400 horses were treated by veterinarians for burns and/or smoke inhalation in San Diego County. Fires of similar magnitude burned in other parts of California as well.

Between 700 and 800 head of horses were evacuated by equine transport companies, who had volunteered their services in San Diego County. How many more were evacuated by owners and volunteers is unknown.

Still another estimate indicated that up to 2,000 horses might have been evacuated by owners and volunteers in Ventura County to the north.

Many of the San Diego County evacuated horses wound up at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club just north of San Diego in Del Mar. At the peak of the crisis, there were approximately 900 equine evacuees housed in track stalls, and about 400 more stabled at the nearby Del Mar Horse Park. Still others were provided shelter by private stables and farms. Many of the polo ponies wintering in Julian, Calif., a fire hotspot, were taken to Yuma, Ariz.

Injuries From Fires

While some of the injured horses suffered from burns, says Larry Catt, DVM, senior partner of Large Animal Veterinary Associates in El Cajon, Calif., many others suffered only superficial wounds because of the nature of the fire. The reason, he says, stems from the fact that the fire raged primarily through low brush that burned fiercely, but quickly, producing tremendous heat in the process.

In some cases, extremely heavy smoke preceded and accompanied the fire, Catt says, with visibility reduced to less than 40 or 50 yards. The fire itself swept through the area at an amazing rate, feeding on low-to-the-ground fuel and fanned by wind.

In many cases, Catt says, the San Diego fire swept so quickly through areas where horses were kept that burns to their bodies were superficial rather than deep-seated. However, there also were problems resulting from smoke inhalation in a number of instances.

One of the fire stories with which Catt was involved has a happy ending. The story was first told by Stephanie Church in the December 2003 issue of The Horse ( and involves a 30-year-old gelding named Yankee. His owner is Carol Prida, whose house and stable were located in Wildcat Canyon, directly in the fire's path. The fire struck so quickly that Yankee could not be evacuated from his stall next to Carol's house. Everything plastic in Yankee's stall, including his buckets, melted from the heat, and he was burned and lacerated from the debris.

Catt, who was Yankee's regular veterinarian, was called on to treat him. "He was really lucky to survive," Catt was quoted as saying in Church's story. "When I saw him, the prognosis was guarded because he had so much facial swelling (from burns and lacerations)."

Today, says Catt, Yankee has some facial paralysis, and sunscreen is required to protect burned spots on his face and neck, but his owner is once again enjoying him as her personal riding horse.

In a number of cases, horse owners have rebuilt or are rebuilding, Catt says, but in some cases there still are lingering issues with insurance companies that await settlement. Loss of vegetation has also been detrimental to the landscape in a number of instances, he says, with erosion and landslides occurring.

There also are cases, Catt notes, where insurance coverage didn't keep pace with a rapidly accelerating housing market. In other instances, owners whose homes were destroyed by fire couldn't afford to rebuild.

There have been some other fallouts from the fires. Many owners, Catt says, aware of the large number of horses that were at least temporarily unidentified at various shelters, are having identification chips implanted in their horses.

There also have been some fallout health problems for horses that survived. In some cases, Catt says, smoke inhalation has contributed to respiratory allergy problems.

The way in which horses reacted to the fire often varied by circumstance, according to Catt and Paik. By nature, they both say, the horse is a flight animal and seeks to flee from danger. Are stories true about horses running into a burning barn because that is where they perceived shelter and security to be?

Neither Catt nor Paik could report a personal experience of that nature. However, they say, it is possible that a horse might run directly into the path of a fire if it became confused and disoriented.

Generally speaking, however, they both conclude that a horse's inclination is to run away from danger if he can.

Other Fire Problems

The fires of 1988 in the Greater Yellowstone area and the California fires of 2003 have rarely been duplicated in recent history, but they aren't isolated instances. In a number of cases, horses have suffered as a result of fires in their locales.

In 2000, for example, severe drought conditions and wildfires destroyed thousands of acres of habitat for this country's wild horse and donkey population. The Bureau of Land Management at the time faced the need for emergency gathers of up to 4,000 wild horses just to keep them from starving to death. Very few horses were killed by those wildfires, but the death sentence was just as certain if their limited feed supply was destroyed by blazes.

Fires also can pose serious dangers for horses and riders on pack trips or even day-long horseback treks into fire-threatened areas.

Caught By Fire

It was summer of 1988, and a group of us had ridden into a favorite area in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana along the Stillwater River--not all that far from Yellowstone National Park. As was normal for us when in that area, our first day's ride took us nine miles deep into the wilderness and a lovely camping spot along the Stillwater River.

As we neared our planned campsite, we spotted a small fire burning in a patch of timber across the river. We debated whether we should ride out and report it. We had about decided we should ride out when a forest service airplane appeared overhead and began circling the fire.

Relieved of the reporting responsibility, we camped along the river that night and the next day continued our pack trip deeper and higher into the wilderness. We returned a couple of days later to lay over at our original camping spot on the Stillwater and ride out to the trailhead the next morning. Our eyes widened in surprise when we saw the size to which the little fire had grown. It was in the process of consuming the entire mountainside on the other side of the river.

There was discussion as to whether we should stay overnight at our campsite or ride on out in the dark. As the trail leader, I opted for camping. No way would that fire be able to jump the Stillwater where we were camped, I argued, and besides, the wind was carrying the fire in the other direction.

With misgivings on the part of some members of the group, we camped there overnight and rode out early the next morning through smoke as the wind began to shift. Soon, however, we had left the fire behind.

We were traveling homeward the next day when we heard some excited radio commentators talking about how the wind had shifted and the fire had jumped the Stillwater River. It was now burning on both sides of the stream and bearing down on the small town of Cooke City, Mont.

It took little imagination to realize the predicament we'd have been in that night if the fire had jumped the river while we had been camped. It was a lesson to be learned and never forgotten. Fire can change course in a flash. If it poses any kind of a threat in an area in which you are riding or camping, get out quickly.

We also learned that we should check into fire conditions before heading into an area. Two years ago we put that self-given advice to good use, but it still wasn't enough. Ironically, the same area was involved. We had planned a ride into the Beartooth Mountains along the Stillwater again. It had been hot and dry in Montana, so the morning before we left we phoned the forest service. No, we were told, there were no fires burning in the Beartooths.

We headed up the road on the five-hour trip from our Wyoming ranch, arriving at the trailhead in the afternoon. We planned to camp overnight at the trailhead, then ride in. It wasn't to be. Fire-fighting personnel were gathering in the area. A lightning strike had started a fire that had not yet been reported when we had called that morning. The trail was closed. We didn't argue. We headed off to another locale that was not threatened by fire.

It also bodes well for the trail rider to learn a bit about how fire travels. We have learned that areas to be avoided are canyons and small valleys. They can act as a chimney to a forest or brush fire with flames roaring up them at incredible speed. Thinking in terms of convex and concave, any piece of ground that is convex is generally safer than an area that is concave because of the chimney effect. In some cases, an exposed knob along the trail can be a good place to take refuge as the fire burns around you.

The best way to avoid trouble when fires threaten, of course, is to stay clear of the area.

Take-Home Message

If you live or ride in an area that is prone to wildfires, know how you will evacuate yourself and your animals. Become familiar with various escape routes, and have help and a safe destination pre-planned. Before riding into the wilderness, check with forestry officials to determine fire danger and whether there are active fires.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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