When one of our assistant instructors in Colorado, Gina Gonzales, pinged me on Facebook a few weeks ago, she said that the fires in the West were predicted to be worse than ever this year. She wanted to start warning people to come up with their evacuation plans before they spread. The High Park fire was just cranking up--how could she have known how horrific the ensuing weeks would be?
The main theme of this blog is to learn from the successes and failures of others in similar situations and scenarios that boggle the mind’s ability to understand them. Wildfires can happen anywhere in the world and the USA. In this week’s blog, we will discuss wildfire evacuation planning, in the next, shelter in place planning. Both evacuation plans and shelter in place planning should be a part of the owner's annual review of disaster mitigation strategies for a facility--and absolutely must be reviewed when fires begin.
Poor examples of “planning” include owners leading their horses down the streets or even interstate evacuation routes, but somehow these always make the newspapers (as those these people are heroes). These last minute poor methods demonstrate the lengths to which people will go to attempt saving their animals, and confirm that most people fail to plan ahead.
Don't wait until the fires start creeping up on you to make your evacuation plan.
Normally it is not the flames of a wildfire that will cause you and your horse to need to evacuate, it is the thick black smoke filled with toxins and poor air quality that impact you well before the flames get to your location, sometimes from miles away depending on ambient environmental factors (humidity, wind direction, speed, etc.). Toxins released by the process of burning do severe damage to the lungs of any living organism. Carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide are common byproducts of fires and, when inhaled, block the absorption of oxygen at the level of the hemoglobin in the blood, causing asphyxiation through anoxia. Flames do not necessarily need to be visible for this to occur. Animals removed from wildfire affected areas may appear medically stable for days, then crash with severe pneumonia. Owners should consult a veterinarian immediately for aftercare because of airway complications from smoke and toxic fumes.
You have to be ready--your truck hitched to the trailer and pre-fueled with animals trained to load at your request. Teaching animals to be reliable loaders in horse trailers or transportation equipment is an excellent prevention mechanism to facilitate evacuation. Identify an alternate place to put animals instead of just leading them out of the barn and saying, "Now what am I going to do?" For regional wildfire disasters, have a pre-coordinated evacuation facility in another state where you can take the animal.
Practice your evacuation plan to find the weaknesses within it and coordinate with the local fire department to come out and get involved, after all, they are the professionals that can point out individual problems to consider with prevention. It is not their job to come “save” you and your animals if you do not plan ahead. Prevention and taking responsibility for the animals should be the theme of animal ownership--an all-hazards approach minimizes emergencies, injuries to animals, and losses.
Facilities should post the evacuation plan for wildfires where everyone can read it and see it easily. The planning process is as important (if not more important) than the plan itself, involving all affected people as a team in generating the plan (family, employees, friends, boarders, etc.). This ensures commitment by everyone to the effort. This kind of training and preparation makes employees and family members more self-reliant, efficient and confident if a disaster or emergency occurs.
Insurers or the local fire department will walk through facilities and barns with owners to identify hazards and give suggestions for reducing fire risk. Large public riding and show facilities are normally inspected at least twice yearly, but regular inspections are a good idea regardless of the size of the operation or local enforcement. Make a written fire evacuation plan and routinely practice that plan, it is recommended that owners practice once a quarter. Public facilities and boarding barns should practice a fire drill and review the evacuation plan once a month which ensures new boarders, employees and students are well prepared.