More than 1,500 large animals that were evacuated from the coast during the August CZU Lightning Complex fire have been returned to their homes. But the fire lingers in many animal owners’ minds.
The volunteer-led Large Animal Evacuation Group said it has been fielding requests for training and facility walk-throughs since the fire subsided, and they’re turning to the recent fire as a lesson in preparedness.
Fawni Hill volunteered with the group as part of the team responsible for loading animals onto trailers. She said evacuation times ranged from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on an owner’s level of preparedness.
In the best scenarios, the animals were haltered and labeled by the time Hill’s team arrived.
“We knew who they belonged to. Some of them had medications and feed to go with them. Owners already knew what facilities they were going to because that was prearranged,” Hill said. “Those advanced preparations are so key.”
The group notes Stacy Claitor of TomKat Ranch as an example of a quick and smooth evacuation.
On Aug. 18, she received the order to evacuate from Pescadero. Claitor, who manages TomKat Ranch and her own ranch nearby, had 24 horses, two goats, two pigs and six cattle to load. She called the Large Animal Evacuation Group to tell them she would begin loading by 3 p.m. By 3:30 p.m., Claitor and her animals were fully loaded and on the move.
“I have been preparing the ranch in case there was an emergency for years,” Claitor said.
When she thinks back to what made the evacuation go quickly, she credits timing and training.
Claitor said she started early. Instead of waiting for an evacuation order, she started to prepare the animals during what she called the “pre-pre-evacuation” warning that arrived with the first sign of smoke. She grabbed the animal’s documents from the emergency “to-go” box that contained notes about her animals’ names and special medications. Her family members helped herd together all their animals at the ranch’s headquarters. With chalk paint, she labeled them so the evacuation volunteers would know which ones had to stay together.
She practices loading her horses, as well as her cattle, into a trailer a few times a year. During the CZU fire, even the retired horses loaded easily, she said.
“Everybody did really well,” she said. “They’re like your kids. We were so proud of them.”
Kris Thoren, the president of the Large Animal Evacuation Group, emphasized the importance of acclimating animals to different loading scenarios, especially horses known for their sensitive natures.
“Make sure that you practice loading your horse. Have others — strangers — load your horses. Many will load calmly and easily with their owner, but may not with others,” Thoren said. “Practice loading your horse at night, with a trailer with a ramp and a step-up. Some are used to seeing only their trailer.”
Hill said she could tell when a horse had not received practice. In some of these cases, evacuations took as long as two hours.
“If it were an emergency situation, we would have had to get in and get out a lot sooner,” she said.
The Large Animal Evacuation Group has started offering animal owners on-site assessments where volunteers help ensure equipment is strategically placed and the facilities are efficiently designed for disaster. For example, volunteers recommend that gates swing toward the outside for easy escape and, if possible, owners should have multiple gates.
These best practices are informed by real-time difficulties volunteers experienced during the CZU fire evacuation: jammed gates that needed to be removed, horses that needed to be sedated before they could be moved.
Though animal owners play a crucial role in an efficient evacuation, volunteers have also been working on streamlining their own processes, such as revising their paperwork and training more volunteers who can answer phones.
The CZU fire was the group’s first activation for a major fire. All told, there were 198 volunteers who helped move and care for 1,546 evacuated animals over the span of 37 days.
Their performance during the fire impressed San Mateo County officials and the Large Animal Evacuation Group was formally adopted by the county on Oct. 8. This official partnership with the volunteer group, which had been recognized by the county as a volunteer resource since 2011, was in the works before the CZU fire broke out.
“That event was proof of concept for the county that we were needed,” Thoren said.
Now the county’s animal care branch director, who sits in the Office of Emergency Services, will act as a liaison with the Large Animal Evacuation Group. Members expect this means they’ll receive evacuation alerts as soon as they’re issued, allowing them to dispatch faster.
“For us, early activation is key,” Thoren.
This version corrects the number of animals relocated and the span of the operation.