Wildfires, Drought, Lightning, and Horses

Wildfires in the United States in the first six months of 2007 have been significant, with hundreds of thousands of acres affected in Georgia, Florida, New Jersey, Minnesota, and even Catalina Island, California. The National Interagency Wildfire Center has predicted the hot zones of wildfire risk through August.

While wildfires are common natural disasters in the western United States, the wildfire forecast includes all of Florida and the southern states of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. Additionally, western North Carolina and Virginia and portions of Alaska are at high risk.

One obvious factor is the drought conditions in many of these states. Alarmingly, the U.S. Drought Monitor showed abnormally dry conditions in wide areas of the United States as of June 1--well before the tinder dryness of later summer months.

Multiple causes for wildfires exist, some due to human factors including campfires, burning brush, smoking, fireworks, use of flares or power tools (welding, grinding, and other power tools), and outright arson. Other hazards include downed power lines, spontaneous combustion of hay and bedding, and electrical fences in contact with dried vegetation.

A natural cause for fires is lightning. The United States has more than 25 million lightning flashes per year, according to the National Weather Service. Each lightning spark can reach more than five miles, and lightning strikes can pack 50,000° F temperatures and 100 million electrical volts.

From 2000-2007, the University of Kentucky Livestock Disease Diagnostic Center (LDDC) diagnosed 101 cases of lightning strike in horses. While 88 (87%) of these cases occurred in the summer months (May through August), cases also occurred in February (1), April (4), September (7) and October (1). These figures represent only those horses brought to the LDDC for necropsy, but they suggest the monthly incidence of the lightning-associated deaths for one geographic area, since most Central Kentucky's equine necropsies are performed at the LDDC.

Droughts and lightning increase the risk of wildfires, all which have a profound impact on horses and farms. An evacuation plan is a must no matter where horse farms are, since barn fires and wildfires can occur anywhere under the right conditions.

All wildfires produce noise, heat, and smoke, which trigger panicked behavior in horses, making them challenging to handle, let alone load into a trailer. Early evacuation is therefore essential via preplanned routes and preparation.

Suggestions for horse farm owners to minimize risks are to clear back brush and low vegetation at least 30 feet from all buildings and clear leaves, branches, and other flammable materials from roofs. Trees and brush, once ignited, are more difficult to extinguish than dried grasses. Coniferous trees and some brush contain a substance called sclerophyll, which can be explosive when heated. Also, some tall ornamental grasses are extremely flammable when dry and should also be planted well away from any structure.

Continued awareness of drought conditions in the region and the status of wildfires can help in decision making.

Preparation for all types of disasters (including wildfires) involving livestock is well documented in the free online course "Livestock in Disasters" offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. General preparation guidelines for homes are available at www.fema.gov.   

CONTACT: Dr. Roberta M. Dwyer, 859/257-4757, rmdwye2@email.uky.edu, Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky.

This is an excerpt from Equine Disease Quarterly, funded by underwriters at Lloyd's, London, brokers, and their Kentucky agents.

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Equine Disease Quarterly

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