December 15, 2003


 Wildfires pack a wallop

Rescue efforts save numerous animals during Southern California wildfires

When fires ravaged Southern California in October and early November, veterinarians and individuals from animal welfare and animal control organizations stepped in to provide assistance. Because of their efforts, many horses, livestock, and pets survived the fiery inferno that raged for two weeks and is touted as the state's worst and most expensive wildfire.

"It's been so devastating. It's burned a quarter of our county," said Pauline White, an administrator with the San Diego County CVMA. The velocity at which the fire spread ... it was chaos."

Shortly after the fires started, local veterinarians hurried to affected areas in Southern California to treat injured animals and aid in evacuating horses, livestock, poultry, and other animals. Local humane societies and departments of animal services sprung into action. Animal evacuation centers were established at several county fairgrounds and rodeo grounds.

"From my perspective, there were a minimum number of horses that were actually burned, which says a lot about the evacuation response from the local people, the Humane Society, and other volunteer organizations," said Dr. Terry Paik, SDCVMA disaster response coordinator.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture also played a role, activating the California Animal Response and Emergency System, which includes the California VMA, animal control agencies, government agencies, and nonprofit animal welfare groups, such as the Humane Society of the United States. The AVMF-funded VMAT teams were put on standby but were not requested.

Some human shelters allowed pets, and few companion animals had to be placed in animal shelters. Volunteers from humane societies worked with the Red Cross to handle any pet problems associated with displaced families who brought their pets to shelters. Evacuating larger animals took a major effort by individuals from the veterinary community, businesses, animal control organizations, humane organizations, and the community at large.

At press time, officials were just beginning to tally numbers from the relief efforts, so data were preliminary, but in San Bernardino County, at least a thousand companion animals and 500 livestock were evacuated and housed in eight main shelters. According to Dr. Andrea Mikolon, a veterinary medical officer at the CDFA, more than 3,000 animals were evacuated in San Diego County. These included animals taken to five large shelters—three permanent ones owned by the county and two temporary ones—set up at a rodeo grounds and a racetrack. Roughly 2,700 were horses and other large livestock, with horses making up the bulk. Over 300 were dogs, cats, and birds. Other, smaller shelters also took in evacuees in affected counties, and many veterinary clinics offered free boarding and supported relief efforts with veterinary supplies and donated time.

Rita Witucki, CARES program manager, says that many equine owners did not have their own trailers, and many found help from nearby neighbors. Others set their horses free, as a last resort, and relied on the kindness of strangers who picked them up, making repeated trips, in many cases. Several facilities lent their large trailers, and these were also instrumental in the recovery efforts. "It was a huge effort by whoever had the horse trailers," said Witucki. "It was a variety of ways that these horses were saved. There were so many of them."

At press time, it was thought that no large horse facilities had been evacuated. The numerous horse evacuees came from private owners—it is fairly common for individuals to own two or three horses in that area of the country.

Witucki says that some owners who arrived at evacuation centers had no idea where their horse was located, but some had taken precautions to make identification easier. "Some people were really smart," she said. "They literally let their horses go in the hopes that someone would grab them, but they spray-painted their phone numbers on the horses." Many individuals who picked up the horses also made efforts to ease identification, such as making notes indicating where animals were found.

www.avmf.orgVolunteers from local humane societies and HSUS canvassed neighborhoods to evaluate problems and evacuated pets that had been left behind. These volunteers and animal control officers responded to calls from residents who were forced to leave their pets and were looking for help. Animal rescue team members were allowed to go within the fire line to rescue animals. At press time, teams had rescued close to 200 animals, including birds, dogs, cats, chickens, rabbits, and an assortment of exotic species.

Even with the most valiant efforts, however, loss was unavoidable. Dr. Mikolon noted that one chicken ranch lost 3,000 chicks, because it didn't have electricity and had difficulty with the generator; another farm lost 300 goats. At press time, however, data regarding the number of deceased animals were only anecdotal. Rendering companies in the area were still picking up animals as they found them.

According to White, at least five veterinarians lost their primary residences in the fire, but nobody had reported the loss of a clinic. Three veterinary support staff also lost their homes. Countless others sustained damage to their house or lost a secondary residence, such as their cabin used for vacationing.

Dr. Paik noted that the response of the veterinary community was tremendous. Local community businesses jumped in immediately, providing everything needed to care, in particular, for horses and other livestock. While animal and human losses will be felt for years to come, most everyone agrees that relief workers gave it their all.

Dr. Cindy Lovern, AVMA assistant director of emergency preparedness and response, says that this disaster again illustrates the need to plan for disasters as much as possible ahead of time. "In this particular case, those people that had identification on their horses or even went further and had a horse evacuation plan were much more likely to have their horses survive than those people who had not taken disaster preparedness steps ahead of time," she said. "Certainly, disasters strike without notice, but (because) each and every individual living in our country could be told to evacuate their home due to a HAZMAT incident, it is vital that everyone plan for a disaster, no matter where you live."

The AVMA provides a free disaster planning resource in the booklet "Saving the Whole Family." Learn more at