Horse Community Rallies While California Wildfires Rage

As almost 11,000 firefighters struggled to contain a massive string of 15 wildfires in California's wine country, horse owners teamed with veterinarians and evacuation site operators to move animals out of the blazes' ways. 

Last week, high winds and dry conditions fueled wildfires that swept through six Northern California counties, driving residents and horse owners from their homes. By Oct. 15, the fires had scorched more than 217,500 acres, destroyed an estimated 5,700 structures, and caused 40 human deaths, according to CAL FIRE, an agency that tracks fire incidents statewide.

While the fires raged, more than 500 horses were moved from the fire zone to fairgrounds evacuation sites in Sonoma County alone. Still others were moved to evacuation sites in Orange, Mendocino, and Napa counties.

“We had 450 horses at the fairgrounds in Sonoma County and 100 at the fairgrounds in Solano County,” said John Madigan, BS, DVM, MS, professor of medicine and epidemiology and head of the University of California, Davis, (UC Davis) Veterinary Emergency Response Team. “But in some cases we had to evacuate and re-evacuate (the horses) because the fire expanded. That happened in Napa and adjacent areas.”

Meanwhile, individual horse owners, private practice veterinarians, and personnel from the Horse and Livestock Team Emergency Response (HALTER) joined the UC Davis team in evacuating animals from pastures threatened by the flames.  

“We had a line of trucks and trailers lined up to get the horses out,” said Tere Crocker, DVM, of North Coast Equine Mobile Veterinary Service.

Not all the horses brought to evacuation sites stayed there, Crocker said. 

“Most of the horses belonging to people at boarding barns really didn't spend a lot of time at evacuation sites, because their owners had made arrangements at other facilities before the fire began,” Crocker said. By Sunday afternoon, responding veterinarians shifted their focus from moving horses out of the fire zone to performing wellness checks on horses that had been relocated or left behind, Madigan said. 

Veterinary teams rotated through evacuation sites checking on the animals and providing care “for colic and the usual things,” Madigan said. 

Elsewhere, authorized veterinary teams crossed fire lines to check on horses that had not been removed from the fire zone in time. 

“The fire spread so fast, some people did not get the call out to evacuate except from their neighbors,” Madigan said. “Out in the field, horses that can be reached are being treated for stress colic, and we've had one horse with burns.”

Veterinarians are also treating horses for smoke inhalation.

“The air quality is terrible,” Madigan said.

On Sunday, CAL FIRE estimated that fire crews had fires in Napa, Sonoma, and Solano counties about 50% contained. 

“But we just saw a new plume of smoke near Santa Rosa,” Madigan said. “Really, 50% containment means 50% is not contained.”

So, Northern California's horse community will continue its recovery efforts. 

“I was as prepared as anyone could be but this was devastating.” said Crocker, who lost her home to the Sonoma County blaze.

The cause of the wildfires remain under investigation.

Those interested in contributing to wildfire recovery efforts can contact the:

  • Veterinary Catastrophic Need Fund at UC Davis at 530/752-7024
  • Horse and Livestock Team Emergency Response (HALTER) at 707/318-7526
  • California Veterinary Medical Association at 916/649-0599

About the Author

Pat Raia

Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who enjoys covering equine welfare, industry, and news. In her spare time, she enjoys riding her Tennessee Walking Horse, Sonny.

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