Fires: Emergency Planning For Your Horse

A wildfire occurs and you need to evacuate. In the smoke and confusion, a beloved horse refuses to load in the trailer. Now you're faced with making decisions. What's the best thing to do?
This is just one of many stressful situations that can happen during a fire.
While it might seem like a remote possibility, the Washington Department of Natural Resources fights about 1,000 wildfires a year throughout the state, with approximately 70% occurring on the east side of the state. Wildfires are just one instance in which horses and their owners can find themselves unexpectedly involved in an emergency situation. Barn fires are another risk to think about.

All horse owners should develop an evacuation plan with at least three escape routes.
Having a plan in case of a fire could save an owner the heartache of losing a horse, or prevent the animal from becoming stranded, trapped, lost, or injured during such an event. It can also reduce the risk of harm to the owners themselves or rescue workers coming to their aid.
All horse owners should develop an evacuation plan with at least three escape routes, especially if there are a large number of horses to deal with. Horse trailers should be kept in good working condition, first-aid kits available, and horses halter-trained and trained to load. It is also helpful to identify other people who can help an owner evacuate horses, especially if more than one trip is required to move them all.    
Local fire department officials can help develop an escape plan, as well as provide recommendations on how to control brush, create firebreaks, and make barns and stables as fire-safe as possible. Their involvement will also help familiarize firefighters with the location of the farm, the number of animals there, and where to find large volumes of water in case of a fire.
Once a fire escape plan is made, it should be displayed at the barn and distributed to anyone who boards a horse there. Put copies in the glove box of all vehicles, too. Some owners will also place a plan in a watertight plastic bag and tape it on the inside roof of their trailers.
To reduce the potential fuel load, regularly clean leaves and other vegetation off from roof surfaces and clear brush at least 30 feet away from all buildings. Also know how to use a fire extinguisher and make sure each canister is ready for use and that there are a sufficient number of them in plain sight.
It's estimated that 80% of agricultural building fires are due to faulty electrical wiring. If an owner uses or owns an older barn or stable, it might be a good idea to critically evaluate the structure and have an electrician inspect the electrical systems, such as the wiring, fuses, breakers, and bulbs.
If constructing a new barn, owners might want to consider using fire-resistant material on the exterior of a barn and roof and constructing non-combustible walls between storage areas for hay, feed and stable areas. It is also helpful to have access to a corral large enough to hold all the horses on a premise, and to have a halter and lead rope at every stall door in case of an evacuation.
Veterinarians can also be consulted about disaster preparedness and emergency management operations. They can educate horse owners and others about caring for animals and what their responsibilities are during a disaster like a fire or flood, and help owners prepare for horses with special needs.
"Veterinarians can provide specific advice about handling individual horses, and prescribe medications to have on hand for horses with special needs, such as in the case of a horse with trailer anxiety," said Julie Cary, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, a Washington State University assistant clinical professor of equine surgery and emergency care and board-certified equine surgeon. "In this case, sedation drugs can be kept on hand to help the horse relax enough to load."  
Owners that want to familiarize themselves with local, state, and federal disaster polices can also seek information from their local fire department, their state emergency management agency, and the Federal Emergency Management Institute.
Another important preparation measure is to permanently identify horses with lip tattoos, freeze brands, or microchips. These markings or devices are useful in reuniting owners with their horses in case of a fire or other disaster in which a horse is left behind, escapes, runs away, or is housed in a shelter. Electronic or radio frequency identification devices are newer forms of identification that owners can consider. Multiple identification methods used on the same horse provide a greater chance for establishing ownership through fail-safe redundancy.
It is also a good idea to take and keep on-hand front and side view photographs of each horse on a farm, herd records, proof of ownership, and registration papers. In an emergency, owners can mark their horses with a livestock paint stick, paint or etch their hooves, clip phone numbers in their hair, or place identification tags on their halters.
"If a horse runs away and gets into a place they cannot get out of and needs rescuing, owners should contact their veterinarian to see what special equipment might be needed," Cary said. "Electric companies and fire departments may also be able to help, or even a neighbor with a front-end loader."
No matter the planning, if a fire breaks out and a person is in imminent danger, get away, stay away, and don't go inside a burning structure for any reason. Call 911 and await help from a safe distance.
For more information, contact your local fire department or for veterinary assistance, the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital at 509/335-0711.

Thanks to Kelli Taylor, DVM, a 2008 graduate of the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine, who provided much of the information for this article.

Reprinted from the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine Equine News Summer 2008 issue.

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