December 01, 2007


 Trial by fire

Past disasters prompt Californians to evacuate, shelter animals during wildfires


Posted Nov. 15, 2007

Hundreds of thousands of people fled from the wildfires that raced through much of Southern California in late October—and they brought along their animals.

Residents of the area remember the wildfires that burned the same region in 2003, and they may have learned lessons from Hurricane Katrina. In both of those disasters, numerous animals died or suffered after people left them behind. People also risked their own lives then trying to rescue animals from fire or flood.

The response to the recent wildfires extended to evacuating and sheltering pets and horses more than in past disasters. As always, the local veterinary community was on hand to assist.

About two dozen fires started in Southern California between Saturday, Oct. 20, and Tuesday, Oct. 23, as fierce Santa Ana winds blew west from the desert to the ocean. Just like four years ago, the worst of the wildfires were in San Diego County, but officials ordered more evacuations this time.

A county on fire  

Numerous evacuation centers, including Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, allowed people to bring pets with them. Two community facilities that operated human shelters in partnership with the American Red Cross also allowed pets. Dr. Terry Paik, San Diego County coordinator for veterinary disaster response, said veterinarians monitored the health of animals at evacuation sites—many of which were outdoors.

Dr. Paik, who is an equine practitioner, noted that San Diego County has a large number of horses. A few of the evacuation sites, such as the Del Mar Fairgrounds and Lakeside Rodeo grounds, housed hundreds or thousands of horses. Some horse owners stayed with their animals in parking lots. Feed suppliers provided tons of hay.

San Diego County also has some large poultry farms and livestock operations. The California Department of Food and Agriculture took steps to assist poultry and livestock owners, even transporting milk from dairies to processing facilities.

"Our highest priority is protecting human life," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in the midst of the evacuations. "With that said, we must also do whatever we can to save and protect our livestock and (other) animals that are affected by this emergency."

Valerie Fenstermaker, executive director of the California VMA, said the CVMA e-mailed members in Southern California to ask for assistance. Many veterinarians housed horses or pets for evacuees. Veterinary technicians and other veterinary staff offered their services. The veterinary industry delivered supplies to the San Diego area.

Fenstermaker said some of the veterinary coordinators for disaster response worked around the clock, and they didn't have a chance during the disaster to take stock of the damage.

"Our immediate concern is taking care of the animals that are displaced." Fenstermaker said Wednesday, Oct. 24, as the fires were burning out of control.

Pauline White, administrator of the San Diego County VMA, e-mailed SDCVMA members to determine which clinics were open and providing services. She shared the list with the County of San Diego Department of Animal Services and other groups.

The Department of Animal Services is San Diego County's lead agency for responding to animals during disasters. Officers coordinated efforts to rescue animals that people left behind.

The department had help from the San Diego Humane Society and other groups—such as the Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, South East Area Animal Control Agency, and Humane Society of the United States.

Lieutenant Daniel DeSousa said workers and volunteers rescued animals ranging from dogs, cats, and horses to ducks, geese, llamas, and goats.

"It's really hot and smoky here," Lt. DeSousa said Wednesday, Oct. 24, at the height of the fires. "We're doing the best we can. Are we going to lose animals in this? Yes, we are. But this was apocalyptic. There's no way anyone could have been prepared for something this huge."

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Aftermath and analysis 

As firefighters began to contain the blazes, officers with animal services started looking for animals that had survived behind the fire lines.

Workers and volunteers provided food for animals that hadn't suffered injuries but whose owners hadn't returned. They brought back horses, cats, and dogs with burns for treatment. Lieutenant DeSousa said officers paid an emotional toll from finding animals that burned to death, such as 15 goats in one field.

Dr. Paik knows of four veterinarians who lost their homes, but he doesn't know of anyone who lost a clinic.

"Most of the veterinarians are back to their practices, receiving calls from their clients," Dr. Paik said Monday, Oct. 29, less than a week after the wildfires peaked.

At the same time, Fenstermaker said, many people who evacuated with animals were unable to return home because their houses or land had burned.

Lieutenant DeSousa said the fires seemed to be as bad as or worse than they were in 2003 because so many fires spread simultaneously. Yet, people who remembered the fires of four years ago had learned to evacuate promptly and take along their animals.

The Del Mar Fairgrounds took in a lot of loose horses in 2003, Lt. DeSousa said, but people arrived with their horses this time. He added that more human shelters may have allowed animals because of the lesson from Hurricane Katrina that people will not evacuate otherwise.

"We obviously saw a lot more people evacuating with their animals this time around," Lt. DeSousa said. "Hopefully, there are less injuries."

Lieutenant DeSousa thinks workers and volunteers rescued similar numbers of animals as four years ago. He hadn't seen as many animal injuries, but he couldn't judge for certain—because animals were staying at various shelters and veterinary clinics.

Dr. Paik also thinks that people evacuated more animals this time than in 2003. Some people still left animals behind because they waited too long or because the fires were moving too fast.

"The main message we're trying to get across is for people to be prepared, have an evacuation plan, and practice that plan," Dr. Paik said.

White said precautionary evacuations gave people warning to move animals. Animal deaths and injuries did not appear to be as extensive as veterinarians had feared, except perhaps among wildlife.

White said officials are aware now that providing for pets and other animals is becoming one of the requirements for disaster response. Pet-friendly human shelters gave people somewhere to go quickly to escape the fires. She said the city and county were much clearer about the provisions for animals than they were four years ago.

Paul Miller, a spokesman for the Red Cross, said the organization continues to adhere to the policy of not accepting pets in shelters. In this case, the Red Cross operated two shelters in partnership with community facilities at the Del Mar Fairgrounds and Valley Center High School, and both of the community shelters allowed animals.

Looking ahead 

The Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act of 2006 authorized using federal funds to help states create pet-friendly human shelters. The PETS Act also requires state and local governments to take pets into account in disaster planning. 

Steve Lyle, a spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said the PETS Act is too new to have affected the response to the wildfires, though. Also, the state already had a program for responding to animals during disasters, the California Animal Response Emergency System, with the agriculture department as the lead agency.

The CVMA operates the Veterinary Disaster Response Coordinator program in cooperation with the state, Fenstermaker said. Each county has a coordinator and team.

"We've been working under this same system for a while," Fenstermaker said.

She said the state has developed a very orderly approach to handling animals in emergency situations—delineating who is responsible for what, without a lot of overlap. Fenstermaker said the response to disaster goes more smoothly each time, and the response to the recent wildfires improved on the approach to the fires four years ago.

By the morning of Wednesday, Oct. 31, San Diego County officials had lifted all evacuation orders. Southern California reported fewer human fatalities than in 2003, though numbers were not available for animal deaths. The wildfires destroyed more than 2,000 homes, most of them in San Diego County.

As the rebuilding process begins, the American Veterinary Medical Foundation is offering support to veterinarians through individual reimbursement and relief awards. The AVMF created the grant program after Hurricane Katrina to help ensure veterinary care to the animal victims of disasters. Details about the program are at

Veterinarians who suffered losses because of the wildfires or who incurred costs by offering medical services to animal victims can apply for up to $2,000 by contacting Monique Buonincontro, AVMF grants coordinator, at (800) 248-2862, Ext. 6691, or at The funds can cover medical expenses, equipment, modest boarding, some travel, loss of property, and other expenses.

The AVMA also advises veterinary professionals who need help or who wish to offer help to contact the California VMA at (800) 655-2862. The CVMA Web site is at It also includes a link to information about effects of smoke on horses from the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.