Our columnist shares what she’s learned from years of handling horses during wildfires.
During the horrific fires that ripped through California this past fall and winter, many people lost their lives, as did horses and other animals. These devastating events can teach us some valuable lessons, because sadly it’s not if but when they will happen again.
In the West, we live with fire danger year round, but there are many barn fires in the East and Midwest as well. This is more common with older, wood-constructed barns, hay storage too near, and older, faulty electrical wiring. But the reality is it can happen anywhere and to any of us.
Growing up on the West Coast, I’ve had to deal with fire for most of my life. In January of 2012 I experienced a wildfire storm that burned my home to the ground as we were struggling to evacuate 80 horses from the farm.
Fortunately, all horses and dogs made it out, and we returned to find minimal damage to barns and arenas. Having an evacuation plan in place was key. Nobody panicked, and the horse community came together quickly to help us, as they did in California.
A few years later there was another wildfire a few miles south of our farm that burned down 30 homes as well as some barns. A few horses and other animals perished. We were at the front line attempting to save horses, fighting with law enforcement to get through with our trailers and trying to instruct first responders how to help us.
Shortly after that we began a bi-annual First Responders Horse Handling & Safety Clinic. The clinic is free to everyone, and we begin with the nature of the horse, how they see, how they react, the fact they are flight animals as well as herd animals.
We give a demonstration on catching a horse in a corral, in a stall, leading, helping load in a trailer, and turning a horse loose. Then we give anyone who wants to participate the opportunity to practice under the watchful eye of our staff and interns.
Some of the first responders had never touched a horse, and they gained valuable experience and confidence. Others have come to the farm between clinics to help with turning horses out, grooming, etc., in order to gain more exposure.
In November we added a fun competition that involved teams of three volunteers/first responders. We set up a corral in the middle of the indoor arena. The teams were given two halters only. (They could use their belts or other articles of clothing.) We turned four horses loose at one end of the arena, and the teams were timed to see how fast they could get all four horses into the corral and close the gate. This did not involve running and in fact required a lot of horse sense. The later teams had the advantage of watching the earlier teams and came up with the best strategy.
Another important thing we’re working on with our county animal services group is to certify volunteers with horse trailers who are willing and able to help evacuate horses during fires, floods and other tragic events. The certification will include ensuring vehicles and trailers are safe, the drivers can handle and load/unload horses, back a trailer in a narrow place, background checks, registration of trucks and trailers, etc. This will also help stop any potential horse thieves.
Once certified, an emblem on the windshield will indicate to law enforcement that that vehicle can continue into closed off roads to help rescue horses and other animals.
Another part of safe and effective evacuation involves horse owners and farm owners making sure their horses are easy to catch and load in a trailer. There should be halters on the stall doors or corral gates at all times. Names on these halters and even owners’ names are a bonus. If horses aren’t branded or tattooed they should be microchipped!
Farm owners could help first responders by having a sign at their front gate stating they need help or that they have all gotten out, so they can go on to the next place and not waste time.
A list of evacuation sites needs to be created and available, so volunteer horse haulers know where to go with these evacuees, and owners know where they might find their horses.
There should also be a central command post where one volunteer group stays appraised of the fire danger and direction of wind. They dispatch volunteer horse haulers and animal rescue to each site depending on priority of danger and location, as well as instructing them where to deliver rescued horses. In turn this command post can keep records of which horses were taken where.
A serious consideration in all this pandemonium has to be human life. Horses are big, strong animals and can innocently harm or kill a person in their path. Educating first responders, volunteers and horse owners of the importance of saving themselves first can help save the horses’ lives as well.
We’ve also had severe floods in Northern Nevada and California. At my farm we had floodwaters in our main barn, indoor arena and clubhouse. We had to evacuate 20-plus horses from their stalls to higher ground in the dark during torrential rain. The same things applied to evacuation from floodwater as from fire. Namely, have an evacuation plan in place, have alternate roadways off the property, and always regard the human lives during all the chaos.
Every emergency situation gives us new lessons about problem solving in order to save lives, both horse and human.
Here are some keynote items on our list, to which we are continually adding:
- Never lock the stalls in a barn!
- As a last ditch effort to free horses, let them out of their stalls, with leather halters (never nylon as they can burn on their face).
- If turning loose, take off bandages and blankets so they don’t catch on fire or hinder escape.
- Close the stall door and barn doors once horses are out so they don’t run back in. Horses perceive the stall as their safe place, and many horses have died after being turned loose because they ran back into their burning barn.
- Have an evacuation plan in place that includes:
- Make it a habit that trucks stay full of fuel, and trailers are clean and easy to access/hook-up.
- Always have leather halters at stall doors, corrals, pastures or turnouts.
- Have an order of horses to be evacuated.
- Have people you can call for help evacuating and facilities to evacuate to.
- Be prepared to have alternate routes off the property should regular roads be blocked.
- Have water trucks always full, hoses in place, face masks for humans.
- Review this plan with staff often!
- Finally, prevention is the best scenario.
- Never store hay or shavings next to the barn.
- Always keep brush and shrubbery clear of buildings.
- Never store manure next to the barn or other buildings.
- Check electrical wiring often and keep up-to-date.
- Never allow smoking in the barn or anywhere on the property!
- Work with your local fire department to familiarize them with the layout of the property.
Julie Winkel has been a licensed hunter, equitation, hunter breeding and jumper judge since 1984. She has officiated at prestigious events such as Devon (Pennsylvania), the Pennsylvania National, Washington International (District of Columbia), Capital Challenge (Maryland), the Hampton Classic (New York) and Upperville (Virginia). She has designed the courses and judged the equitation finals.
She has trained and shown hunters and jumpers to the top level and was a winner of multiple grand prix competitions and many hunter championships.
Winkel serves as the co-chair of the USEF Licensed Officials Committee, and she serves on the USHJA Emerging Athletes Program Committee. She also sits on the Young Jumper Championships board of directors.
Winkel owns and operates Maplewood, Inc., a 150-acre training, sales and breeding facility, standing grand prix jumpers Osilvis and Cartouche Z in Reno, Nev. Maplewood Inc. also offers a year-round internship program for aspiring horse professionals.
She writes a monthly column for Practical Horseman’s “Conformation Clinic” and is a contributing columnist to Warmbloods Today magazine as well as an EquestrianCoach.com blogger.