Good livestock evacuation plans are no accident

by Kate Campbell

September 6, 2006

  • Governor considers related legislation
  • ‘When it’s happening is not the time to start planning’

The wildfires that ravaged San Diego County in 2003 dramatically illustrate the need to plan ahead for the evacuation of animals during emergency situations. The fire killed 16 people, several of whom were horse owners attempting to save their animals.

“The worst of our fire season is right now,” says Riverside County rancher Andy Domenigoni. “It begins when the rainy season ends and runs at least six to eight months, but in a dry year it could last all year.”

Mr. Domenigoni knows firsthand just how dangerous fire season can be. About 10 years ago, he and his wife, Cindy, along with about 100 head of beef cattle, were surrounded by flames in a major wildfire that charred the family’s ranch, as well as the surrounding area.  Through sheer luck and experience gained from years working on the land, they all survived. But the experience left the family with definite ideas about the importance of disaster planning and the need for large animal evacuation plans.

“The biggest problem we have is that it’s hard to get to the cattle when there’s a wildfire,” he says. “In the Winchester fire, we gathered the cattle on horseback while the fire was coming. We cut barbed wire fences from one pasture to another and were leading the cattle down to the main ranch. We passed through a field that already had been disked. It was only about a 20-acre patch. We were doing this in the middle of the night. We had one horse leading the cattle and one horse in the rear to make sure the calves got through. But then the fire circled back and got in front of us. We took off running on the horses back the way we came and the cattle followed us back to the disked pasture. The fire was coming so fast.

“We stayed in the disked pasture through the night with our cattle and the fire burned all around us. We couldn’t get out. We were trapped. We lost radio contact. Nobody knew where we were and they couldn’t go in to find us. It was really bad and there was nothing we could do.”

Major disasters, like the wildfire that struck the Domenigonis’ ranch, hit the state with heart-sinking regularity. The impacts of these catastrophic events aren’t just on people and their communities. The state is home to more than 5.4 million head of cattle, 700,000 head of horses, 670,000 sheep, 350,000 pigs and millions of chickens, turkeys and other fowl.  These numbers represent commercial livestock and don’t include the millions of domestic pets and other commercial species like goats, llama and emu that also live here.

Although protection of human life is appropriately the highest priority in disasters, animal health experts say recent disaster experiences and follow-up research shows that proper preparation and effective coordination of animal issues during emergencies can improve the ability to protect livestock and prevent unnecessary losses.

In the devastating wildfires that struck San Diego County the week of Oct. 26, 2003, 16 people were killed, several of them horse owners unable to evacuate their animals quickly enough or who reentered fire areas to rescue their horses. The savage blaze burned down 2,427 homes and businesses and left thousand of animals dead, injured, abandoned or running at large.

“After the Cedar fire, it took months to reunite the right horses with the right owners,” says Linda Schumacher, a reserve officer with the Chula Vista Mounted Police Unit, which recently helped organize a microchipping clinic for horses in that community.  “The need for permanent identification was clear during the Cedar fire,” Ms. Schumacher says. “When animals have permanent identification, with a quick scan and phone call, we know the owner’s name, if the horse requires medication, etc.”

California Farm Bureau Federation also has gone on record in support of comprehensive planning for livestock during emergencies. In a letter supporting Assembly Bill 450 (Yee, D-San Francisco), which has been approved by the Legislature and awaits the governor’s signature, Farm Bureau says, “The floods of 1997 and again in 2005 highlighted the importance of having plans to deal with evacuations of livestock.”

AB 450 requires the state Office of Emergency Services to incorporate the existing California Animal Response Emergency System (CARES) program into the state’s overall disaster plans. Previously the CARES plan was used as a reference for OES, but was not included as an integral part of the state’s disaster response planning.

Noelle Cremers, CFBF natural resources and commodities director, told state legislators, “No livestock managers want to leave their animals to drown or be burned alive and they will put themselves in harm’s way to prevent this. Putting formal plans in place at the state and county level to help with orderly livestock evacuations and sheltering during emergencies will save lives–both human and animal.”

She cautioned, however, that merely developing plans does not go far enough.  “Officials who will be responsible for implementing these plans need training in the area of animal evacuation, as well as assistance in developing effective disaster plans for animals,” she says. “Passage of this bill provides an opportunity for farmers and ranchers to review their own emergency plans and work with local, county and state agencies to protect their livestock when disaster occurs.”

California farmers and ranchers are well aware of the difficulties faced when trying to evacuate or protect livestock in an emergency, Ms. Cremers says.   “In the case of AB 450, the Legislature has done the right thing in passing this important bill,” she says. “Now livestock owners need to do their part to be sure a workable disaster plan that addresses the needs of their animals is in place on the ranch and in their local community.”

The risks of not having a plan, she says, include the refusal of animal owners to evacuate, early return of animal owners to unsafe areas, large animals spreading disease and becoming a danger to people in the area, abandoned animal carcasses and economic loss.

Henry Vega, president of Ventura County Farm Bureau, says he has been giving a lot of thought to emergency response plans for the ranch he helps manage. He is concerned about reducing wildfire conditions in the fire-prone Santa Clara River Valley where the ranch is located. He also is developing plans for the evacuation of about 25 horses.

“We had a fire come through this area before,” Mr. Vega says. “At that time there weren’t as many animals on the ranch as there are now. My concern is that in the case of a wildfire, these animals will need to be moved pretty quick. That’s why I’ve been talking about this and developing a resource binder so I can come up with an evacuation plan.

Mr. Vega says he considers emergency planning an integral part of operating an agricultural business. “I think we can use the old adages: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure or plan for the worst and hope for the best. I believe that people who develop a plan will fare better in a disaster.  I was born and raised here and I’ve fought fires myself on the ground and seen them form the air,” Mr. Vega says. “People don’t realize how quick fires can spread from one end of the county to the other, especially when they’re fanned by dry Santa Ana winds in the fall.  The fire takes on a life of its own,” he says. “Trees explode from the heat and rattlesnakes, deer and mountain lion are driven ahead of the flames and onto the ranches. I’ve had to run for my own life before.”

He says he has also seen livestock owners wait too long to evacuate and has witnessed the added danger that comes with trying to load terrified animals into cattle trucks and horse trailers. He says from his own experience he’d rather move livestock early as a precaution rather than wait until flames are exploding nearby.
Mr. Domenigoni says on his ranch preparing for fire season is routine and that “extinguishers are on all our equipment. Tractors and water trucks are ready to go. We take radios everywhere and, if we see smoke close by, we start the tractor rolling before we know exactly where the fire is.”   He advises farmers and ranchers to keep equipment ready that will help in cutting fire breaks. Have cattle truck companies lined up. Know where your livestock is grazing and act quickly. Plan evacuation routes and keep supplies on hand.

“The real problem, however, is after the fire or disaster,” Mr. Domenigoni says. “All your pasture can be gone. You’ve lost fences and your water system can be burnt up. After the Winchester fire, we had 11 and a half miles of fence to fix and our water system was destroyed. Evacuation plans are needed wherever you live,” he says. “Things can happen in the middle of the night or when you least expect it. When it’s happening is not the time to start planning.”

(About the writer: Kate Campbell is assistant editor for Ag Alert, a publication of the California Farm Bureau Federation, for which this article was first written. It is used with permission.)

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