Saving Horses From the Northern California Wildfires

Saving Horses From the Northern California Wildfires

Volunteers try to steer newly arrived donkeys into the stable area at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds large animal evacuation center in Santa Rosa, California, on Oct. 11, 2017. More than 200 fire engines and firefighting crews from around the country rushed to California to help battle infernos, which have left at least 41 people dead and thousands homeless.

Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Sunday, Oct. 8, Santa Rosa Junior College animal science instructor Amy Housman did something unusual for her: She put her phone on “Do Not Disturb” to enjoy a quiet evening away from her electronics.

“When I turned it on Monday morning, I had 15 texts that read from, ‘Are you okay?’ to ‘I’m out!’ ‘Hope you are up and aware.’ And, finally, one that simply said, ‘Fire,’” she says. “I walked to the front door, looked outside, and it looked like the eastern horizon was on fire. All of it.”

Then came the text that said: “We’re evacuating the barn.”

“I threw on my clothes and ran,” she recalls. “Driving to the barn was a blur, I couldn’t make a phone call, there was no internet, and the radio was saying Kmart was on fire. The only thing that made sense to my sleep-logged brain was terrorism. How could there be fire to the east and west of me? At that point, I realized I had no idea what was on fire, how I could get to the barn, and that I had also left my cat and house with no idea if they were in danger.”

On the morning of Oct. 9, the Tubbs fire spread quickly through Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, California, and had already devastated homes, reportedly traveling 12 miles in its first three hours. By day’s end hundreds of homes and businesses in the city would be destroyed and tens of thousands of people evacuated. As of Oct. 12, this fire alone had burned an estimated 2,834 homes and firefighters had it less than 40% contained.

But this isn’t the only wildfire burning Northern California. The strong winds and dry air whipped up similar fires overnight on Oct. 8 in Butte, Lake, Mendocino, Napa, and Yuba counties.

Left behind horses stand loose in front of a garage in the mandatory evacuation area.

Photo: Lisa Martin-Gerdes

Lisa Martin-Gerdes was already in bed reading when her veterinarian called to alert her family to the Cascade fire in Yuba County. “My husband and I got up and went outside, we could see the fire from our driveway,” she says. “I ran up the hill to catch our stallion. I was really terrified, the wind was howling, I could see flames and there was really strong smell of smoke, and the horses were nervous. It was midnight, and it was so dark.”

Meanwhile her husband, horseshoer Max Gerdes, hooked up their trailers. The couple owns Redbud Ranch, where they breed Connemara sport horses. “We have 12 horses on property, including the stallion, several broodmares, babies, and riding horses that all live out. Our plan was to take the dividers out of the trailers to turn them in to stock trailers so we could load everyone up.

“We could not tell how far away (the fire) was or how fast it was moving, but it was headed toward us downhill,” she continues. “I loaded up the first trailer and figured (the horses) could stand tied while we got the others.”

However, the fire changed direction, and they watched it move away from them and ultimately decided not to evacuate. Instead, they stayed in their home that authorities had placed within a mandatory evacuation order. This meant that while they could drive around their neighborhood, they could not leave the evacuation zone. “If we had left we would not have been allowed back in,” explains Martin-Gerdes.

The next morning they decided to search for any animals left behind by those who had chosen to evacuate and make sure the animals had access to feed and water.

“We found a mule and a couple of horses,” Martin-Gerdes says. “The horses had survived (by standing) on a small patch of irrigated lawn around a house.”

A mule that survived the fires stands in a burnt area.

Photo: Lisa Martin-Gerdes

The homes she saw that had no damage tended to be those surrounded by irrigated landscaping.

Evacuation Lessons

For Housman in Santa Rosa, Monday went by like a blur. With her home and horse in relative safety, college closed, and devastation in all directions, Housman decided to put her expertise to good use and on Tuesday set off to volunteer at the local fairgrounds. Here she connected with her local veterinarian and spent the rest of the day unloading animals and assisting however she could. “We unloaded everything from horses, cattle, and sheep to llamas and yaks,” she says.

During this process, she learned horses must load reliably onto trailers. “There is no time to quietly coax a wary horse into a trailer while fire is approaching,” she explains. “They need to be able to walk up and get right on. If not, you risk having to leave them behind.”

Waiting until the last moment to evacuate increases anxiety and the chance that a horse will not load. “After seeing what I saw I would strongly recommend that if there is even a chance that you will get evacuated that you do so early and without hesitation,” advises Housman.

This is a sentiment heard repeatedly as you talk to those helping with the evacuation effort. A voluntary evacuation order should be taken as a signal to get all stock out. Housman recommends evacuating difficult loaders at the slightest sign of trouble. Having to evacuate horses in thick smoke with embers flying and the risk of vehicle tires melting on hot pavement endangers all those involved. Under a mandatory evacuation you might only have time to save yourself, she says. If there’s a chance to get out early, take it.

Horse trailers staged along the road to move horses out of the evacuation area.

Photo: Keila Golden

It’s also important to understand that as roads close or the evacuation status changes, a trip that might normally take you 30 minutes to complete might take several hours or more.

“You may think you have time for multiple evacuation runs, but the situation can change with little notice and you may not have that option,” explains Housman.

Setting up a Command Center

Christine Beavers of Pleasant Hill, California, started helping with the evacuated animals at the Solano County Fairgrounds on Monday night.

“It was chaotic,” she recalls. “We only had about 10 to 20 people to help with 100 horses, 40 goats, 40 sheep, chickens, and a pig.”

Many of the horses came in without owners or feeding instructions. Volunteers had to guess what to feed, and they learned the hard way that some horses did not like being in stalls. A lot of the horses were older and unable to eat hay, but initially volunteers had few other options to offer them. In subsequent days, the number of animals at these fairgrounds has grown to more than 300, but the good news is the volunteers and feed donations have grown, too.

While things were chaotic in the first hours, within 24 hours a veterinary team had moved on site, and within 48 hours a full veterinary staff was in place. Working with the Northern California Association of Equine Practitioners, Solano County Fairgrounds has become the command center for the region’s other evacuation sites. While feed donations and volunteers at the Solano Fairgrounds location have been extremely generous, other locations have received less help. Those running the Solano site are now coordinating between sites sending on volunteers they don’t need, as well as other resources.

Social Media Connecting Resources

As word got out about the dire situation facing these counties, people have used social media to help mobilize aid. However, calls for help to evacuate one large ranch kept circulating well after the horses had been removed. This can result in good samaritans being put in harm’s way unnecessarily.

Those using social media to share calls for help or resource needs can take steps to reduce the risk of redundancy, says Brenda Cedarblade, owner of Tack Warehouse in Woodland, California. Cedarblade has extensive experience using social media for her business and travels throughout the state to shows with her mobile tack trailer.

“I know a lot of horse people” she explains. “I have over 3,000 friends on Facebook. Monday morning, I was receiving messages from so many people asking me for help, and I was watching posts go viral even though I knew the barn in question had already been evacuated.”

She recommends that anyone putting out a call for aid on Facebook include a phone number; an address where the horses are or where resources are needed; the number of horses if looking for evacuation; and to make the post public.

“It is important that if you see such a post on your timeline that you share it rather than copy and paste into a new post,” she cautions.

When people share posts, any edits made to the original post are updated across all shared versions of the post. The original poster should then edit his or her post once aid is received, making an easily visible statement at the top of the post that help or resources are no longer needed.

Cedarblade also recommends using social media to reunite separated animals with their owners. She has seen a couple of horses as well as other pets get reunited thanks to shares on social media.

While Martin-Gerdes did receive a call from officials on her landline alerting her to the fire, she believes had that been their initial warning and the fire not changed direction, they wouldn’t have gotten out in time.

The many people impacted by these fires reiterate the need for a community communication system.

“I felt like I could never get enough information,” says Martin-Gerdes, who recommends downloading an emergency text messaging service onto your smartphone. Know how to get updates from your local emergency services and law enforcement.

Take-Home Message

The successes being seen within the equine community in the aftermath of this tragedy come largely from the community’s ability to pull together. The reality is that emergency services are consumed with saving lives and property. This means when it comes to saving your horses and other stock, you’re on your own. You have to have an executable plan. It’s human nature to watch natural disasters from afar and think they’ll never happen to you, but Housman cautions against this thinking.

“I’d had speakers into my classes about large animal evacuation and rescue, I thought I’d know what to do, but there’s no time for thinking in the moment,” she says. “You need to have a plan ahead of time.”

About the Author

Clair Thunes, PhD

Clair Thunes, PhD, is an independent equine nutrition consultant who owns Summit Equine Nutrition, based in Sacramento, California. She works with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the United Kingdom Pony Club. Today, she serves as the regional supervisor for the Sierra Pacific region of the United States Pony Clubs. As a nutritionist she works with all horses, from WEG competitors to Miniature Donkeys and everything in between.

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