Getting out: A horse owner’s guide to planning for a wildfire evacuation |

Getting out: A horse owner’s guide to planning for a wildfire evacuation

By Rachel Spencer
for Tri-State Livestock News
crews fighting fire on ranch
Crews work to battle a wildfire that burned portions of northeastern Colorado earlier in 2017. Cattle and horses were killed and displaced and hay was among the fuels firefighters had to battle. Photo courtesy of Logan County Emergency Management.

Kali Benson knows firsthand how challenging and stressful evacuating horses can potentially be as an emergency bears down upon horsemen. Benson, originally from New Mexico, is now serving Elbert County (Colo.) as a Colorado State University Extension agent.

“We were more out on the mesa in New Mexico and would have fires from time to time,” she said. “We would go in, help load, evacuate, and help people shelter in a new place.”

In her experience, some of the simplest questions that horse owners can ask themselves are among the most vital. Knowing whether the horses will load in a trailer readily and knowing whether a trailer and vehicle are readily available and road-worthy are her first questions. For many horse owners, horses are used frequently and loading is a daily activity. However, that’s not the case for some.

“I can’t tell you how many people I see that have horses and don’t have a trailer or they aren’t able to drive the trailer or have horses and they don’t load into a trailer,” she said.

Loading and driving trailers are both activities that can quickly become even more difficult under the stress of an emergency that necessitates evacuation. Maintaining composure, Benson said, is difficult in an emergency but can help make an evacuation successful.

In times when evacuations might be more likely, for example during high fire danger times, Benson said horse owners should determine whether they have a trailer that can be accessed and driven and, if not, formulate a back-up plan. In such times, it’s crucial to ensure that vehicles are maintained and in good condition so a tire blow out won’t further hamper efforts.

“In terms of planning for potential fires, landscape is important in having some defensive zones around your property to help mitigate how close that fire might get,” she said. “If it’s something like a barn fire, trying to keep fire safe zones so fuels like hay and straw are separated from the horses’ entrance and exit is important.”

Emergencies run the gamut of possibility and planning can be difficult but some prep work can pay off no matter what type of emergency sparks an evacuation.

“In the trailer, have photos of all of your horses, hauling papers, contact information, descriptions of what the horse looks like, so if they’re loose or picked up by someone else, you can find them,” she said.

Corey Sloan, Deputy Emergency Management Director, Harrison County (Missouri) Emergency Management, agrees that information is often the best plan for preparing for the unexpected.

Emergency personnel need horse and livestock owners to have accurate inventories of livestock as well as any hazardous or flammable materials on the farm or ranch. Often challenging in wildfire situations in which the fires move quickly, Sloan suggests having knowledgeable personnel available outside of the immediately affected area that can assist in evacuation of livestock if time permits.

Other information and items to gather prior to an emergency include livestock identification and management records, basic handling equipment, medications, feed, and ensuring that emergency items are in each vehicle.

“They recommend using a Sharpie marker to write a contact number on the horses’ hoof or hide,” she said. “A paint stick also works, an engraved halter with contact information, a luggage tag braided into a horse’s mane can work. There are steps people can take.”

If an evacuation is not possible, Colorado State University urges owners not to leave horses confined in stalls, barns, or pastures. Once out of confined areas, it is important to close gates so the horses do not return to the familiar areas and succumb to the fire. Additionally, horses may not react as they typically might under such a stressful event and bearing in mind human safety is paramount.

After evacuation, the question of shelter in a new location arises and must be determined quickly. In many cases, the local fairgrounds will be made available.

Many states also have disaster readiness teams to serve counties or regions. A call to local extension offices can also guide horse owners to various resources and even, in some cases, help owners formulate a plan. Local veterinarians and the state veterinarian can also be excellent resources.

Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattleman’s Association, said groups can work closely with the state veterinarian to ease the burden on owners and help emergency responders better help horse and livestock owners.

The CCA responded to fires in Chaffee County, in the high country, where Fankhauser said fires burn slowly and for a longer period than on the eastern Plains and other Plains states. Response to a fire in that area can be working with the state veterinarian and other agencies to gain access to areas to check on and feed livestock.

Once an emergency is discovered, Benton urges horse owners to act quickly and use the previously determined plan as much as possible to ensure safe evacuation so that human life and safety is not in danger.

“This is truly one of those things you have to think about before it happens,” said Benson.