On December 7, 2017, the raging Lilac Fire swallowed San Luis Rey Downs, a Thoroughbred training facility, claiming the lives of nearly 50 horses and devastating the livelihoods of dozens of workers and trainers. The smoke and flames, fanned by high winds and low humidity, came too fast – the horses who were pulled from the scene arrived at the Del Mar Racetrack evacuation site singed and smelling of smoke, but alive. One horse, stoically battling a deep cut over his eye and several burns on his body, rested his head in my arms and took a deep breath, thankful for a moment of peace and safety.
It’s a recurring nightmare. Devastating fires have continued to rock the U.S. West Coast. According to Cal Fire, which oversees fire-fighting efforts in California, fire season can be considered year-round in some areas, but with a definitive summer and winter increase in likelihood. Just like any other natural disaster, having a plan in place is so important, something to instinctually defer to in times of emergency, when lightning-fast decisions are vital.
While these tips are written with fires in mind, they are universally useful. It’s always better to be prepared, no matter what disaster Mother Nature throws our way.
Plans A, B, and C
Wherever your horse is, take the time to map out potential evacuation routes. Are there roads that frequently get congested? Are there some roads that are more difficult to safely (and quickly) navigate a trailer? Find the most efficient way to put distance between your horse and the fire – and have a back-up plan, just in case.
Hook It Up
If possible, make sure you have all available trailers in the best position for fast hook-up. A barn should have enough readily accessible trailer spots for every horse on the property. Of course, it’s usually impossible to keep these trailers hooked up at all times, but do regular checks on all equipment and hitches. You need to be able to be on your way in minutes, not sitting there panicking because you forgot to check tire pressure or WD-40 the ball joint.
Practice Makes Perfect
Show horses or any horse accustomed to traveling are going to be easier to load, generally speaking, but it’s still important to practice this. Practice loading in a “hurry” (but safely, of course), and do this regularly. For horses who are pastured or who do not travel, pull them in and get them used to loading. This will save loads of time, and your horses will be less anxious if they’re used to the drill. Remember: horses are flight animals, but they’re also creatures of habit. Set them up for success through repetition.
If you have absolutely zero options to evacuate, don’t leave your horse locked in a stall or pasture.
In the unfortunate event that you are separated from your horse during a fire, maintain good quality, current photos on your phone. Face, distinguishing marks, tattoos, brands – anything that could be used to identify the horse. Of course, it’s also beneficial to microchip or otherwise permanently identify your horse, but photos will help if you’ve been separated.
On that note, it’s also beneficial to keep excellent records, and to keep those records in one easy-to-access place. Coggins, medication lists, etc. should be kept in a dry place – many like to leave these in the truck or trailer.
When In Doubt, Let Them Out
If you have absolutely zero options to evacuate, don’t leave your horse locked in a stall or pasture. Open the gate or stall door, and ensure that it stays open. Secure it somehow. A horse will instinctively find the safest possible place, but they can only do so when given freedom.
If you’ve had to leave your horse behind, follow your state or county’s Fire Department, Humane Society, and Animal Control on Twitter and Facebook – many times, these departments will provide updates on these channels. There will also typically be a dispatch number set up to help direct questions after evacuation.
After the Fire
Exposure to smoke can have long-lasting effects on all living beings. Limit or cut out exercise if there is still smoke in the air, and provide clean fresh water at all times. Airway damage can take several weeks to clear up, and even if your horse does not present with a cough, it’s worth having your vet take a look with a scope to be safe.
You can find more post-fire practices here.