Colorado Fires Cause Evacuations

Equine evacuation plans were put to the test in Colorado when the Overland Fire in canyons northwest of Boulder grew so quickly that within just a few hours, 3,500 acres were engulfed and indefensible. The fire started on the morning of Oct. 29 in James Canyon near Jamestown, Colo., and spread east. On Oct. 30, crews were able to create a fire line in the Boulder Open Space called Heil Valley Ranch, one mile from US Highway 36. Tanker crews stayed in the area to check on hot spots for several days.

Officials from the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office animal control department and area barn managers estimated between 350 and 400 horses were at risk; 60 were evacuated to the nearby county fairgrounds, a designated evacuation site.

After the Hayman Fire of 2001, Boulder Country animal control officer Terri Snyder wrote an evacuation plan to identify a network of volunteers with trucks and trailers to haul horses to the fairgrounds.  Her two chief resources were the Boulder County Horseman’s Association (www.boulderhorse.org) and the county’s mounted search and rescue squads.

“This is the first time we’ve had to use it,” Snyder said of the plan, adding that spotty cell phone coverage in the mountains made reaching stand-by volunteers difficult.

No horses were lost in the fire, Snyder said.

Julie Barringer-Richers, former barn manager at Autumn Hill International Equestrian Center just up the two-lane highway in Longmont, where she directs the children’s dressage program, had to implement the evacuation plan she’d created for 43 horses within five minutes after 70 mph winds caused the fire to shift suddenly.

“Within 10 minutes we had one trailer with five horses going out,” she said.
Barringer-Richers said the evacuation went smoothly because of advance preparation that included constant communication with owners, neighboring barns and the evacuation destination; using a master list to check out horses as they loaded; having sufficient access to and egress from the barn; and prioritizing volunteers’ tasks (load horses, then hay and tack). 

Earlier, she had required boarders attach two sets of dog tags to the halter side ring: one with the horse’s name, owner’s name and phone number; the other with the horse’s name, barn name, and phone number.

She also stationed herself in a central location to be visible and accessible. She said she created a calling tree to mobilize immediate help, which had detailed information about truck and or trailer availability, and urges trailer owners to keep them in good working order and the partitions in place.  She said she plans to create an index of more detailed information to include the specifications, ball size, and license plate number.

She also watched out for owners having difficulty loading their horses, stepping in if they couldn’t load the horse after three attempts, to avoid increasing the horse’s anxiety.

“Slant load trailers saved the day every time,” she said.

About the Author

Meg Cicciarella

Meg Cicciarella is a freelance journalist who lives and writes in Homer, on Alaska's banana belt, the Kenai Peninsula. Her articles have appeared in local, regional, and national newspapers and magazines.

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