While firefighters battle some of California’s worst wildfires in recent memory, rescuers and evacuation sites are coping with an influx of horses driven from their homes. And in the fire zone, veterinarians are working to help animals left behind when owners evacuated.
On Sept. 9 the Butte Wildfire broke out in Northern California’s Amador and Calaveras counties. Three days later on Sept. 12, the Valley Fire began to threatened homes, ranches, and vineyards in Lake, Napa, and Sonoma counties. Within hours of fires’ the onset, mandatory evacuations forced residents and their animals into shelters and holding centers, said Jaime Moore, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).
“Some of the other horses have been taken to large ranches outside the fire zone that have donated space for them,” said Amador County Fairgrounds spokeswoman Kathy Simmons.
At the same time, an undetermined number of horses were evacuated ahead of the Valley Fire, said Jeff Hoelsken, executive director of the Sunrise Horse Rescue in Saint Helena. California.
“On Sept. 14 we alone took in 25 horses and other animals including goats,” Hoelsken said. “We previously had 17 horses that have already been claimed by their owners.”
Hoelsken said Sunrise personnel, along with personnel from the University of California, Davis, and the Napa Valley Equine medical practice, remained at work throughout the week removing horses and other large animals from the danger zone and evaluating them for subsequent care.
“We still have the trailers ready to roll,” he said.
While firefighters continue to battle the blazes many mandatory evacuation orders remain in place in all the affected counties. But even when all those orders are lifted, some horses will remain homeless.
“Many of these horses will return to their homes once their owners can come and get them and bring them home,” said representative for the Calaveras County Fairgrounds. “But some owners’ properties have been destroyed and the horses will have no place to go, so we’re going to have them for a while.”
Hoelsken said he expects his rescue’s equine population to swell, too.
”Some of the horses will remain at the rescue for their entire lives,” Hoelsken said, adding that, eventually, others will be fostered.
Meanwhile, the Butte and Valley Fires continue to burn. As of Sept. 16, the Butte Fire had claimed 71,780 acres and was just 45% contained, according to CalFire. At the same time, the Valley Fire had destroyed 70,000 acres and was only 30% contained, CalFire said.
So for the foreseeable future horse rescuers in the fire zones will remain vigilant; “We’re still in triage mode,” Hoelsken said.
However, due to the Valley Fire’s rapid spread, not all owners were able to bring their horses when officials instructed them to evacuate.
“It moved with such speed that people were ordered to leave their animals behind,” said Claudia Sonder, DVM, is the director of the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), School of Veterinary Medicine’s Center for Equine Health. “Because so many animals were left to fend for themselves, several veterinarians from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine were asked by Lake County and Yolo County officials to assist with animal evacuations and emergency treatments.”
The UC Davis team was led by the school’s Veterinary Emergency Response Team, headed by John Madigan, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, ACAW, and Eric Davis, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, ACVIM, and included Sonder along with veterinarians from the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital and the International Animal Welfare Training Institute. This response was carried out in collaboration with the California Veterinary Medical Association’s Reserve Corps, assisting with search and rescue efforts as well as emergency treatment of animals in the field.
Sonder said Sept. 18 that the effort is still ongoing, six days after this wildfire started.
“In addition, Dr. Jeff Smith (DVM, CCRP) of Middletown Animal Hospital, located near the fire, has worked tirelessly and endlessly to treat and care for injured animals, provide food, water and shelter for any animals in need, and reunite animals with their owners,” Sonder said.
She also noted that critically injured animals—including a horse, cats, dogs, and two pigs—have been brought to the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital for intensive care.
Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who enjoys covering equine welfare, industry, and news. In her spare time, she enjoys riding her Tennessee Walking Horse, Sonny.
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