image-large animal rescue
Animal lovers volunteer for training in case the Coastside's many large animals need help in an emergency. Photo courtesy Beth Pielert

The rural nature of the Coastside lends itself to horses and livestock. But that is a vulnerable population of animals that need a particular set of protocols during an emergency, such as wildfire or flood.

A group of volunteers has come together to form a countywide organization dedicated to preparing and responding to the needs of large animals during natural disasters or emergencies. 

Kris Thoren, of Moss Beach, is the current president of the San Mateo County Large Animal Evacuation Group. Thoren’s been a member of the group for more than a decade and is also a horse owner. 

“We have a large population of horses, cattle, llamas, goats, throughout the county, but especially along the coast,” Thoren said. “So, having an emergency plan is vital.” 

The organization formed in 2009, then called the Coastside Large Animal Evac Unit, with the help of a Pescadero couple that shared a passion for the animals. Eugenia Silva and her boyfriend, former firefighter Paul Gurries, formed the group in response to the wildfires in Santa Cruz County in 2008. The pair was inspired by the Santa Cruz County Equine Evacuation group, which provides support and shelter to animals in a disaster. The goal was to create a network ready to rescue any large animal in danger on the Coastside during an emergency or other situation. 

For many years, Sharon Montoya-Bretz served as the group’s first president and worked to establish official recognition with San Mateo County’s Office of Emergency Services. In 2011, the renamed San Mateo County Large Animal Evacuation Group became the designated volunteer resource for the county. 

This created a chain-of-command and activation protocol for members of the group during emergencies. Either the OES or CalFire can call or text members of the group to respond to incidents in the county. 

“We take large animals out of harm’s way in the event of a large- or small-scale emergency, such as a fire or flood,” Thoren said. “We remove them to a safe location and lessen the burden on emergency services.” 

While the group hasn’t yet had to respond to a widespread emergency, Thoren said members have been called into action. 

“Recently, we were called out when there was a brush fire that was getting close to a couple of properties with horses,” Thoren recalled. “We arrived on scene and were there to speak with the owner and prepare her. We were there to provide comfort and be ready to evacuate the animals if necessary.” 

To ensure members are refreshing important skills, the group offers a meeting at 6:30 p.m. on the second Wednesday of every month at the Coastside Fire Protection District headquarters on Main Street in Half Moon Bay. 

Similar to other emergency preparedness groups on the coast, this one stresses the importance of taking steps to plan for an emergency before it happens. 

This includes reminding animal owners to have a gate in good working order, ensuring a halter is hanging outside the stall doors, training horses to be comfortable loading into a trailer with a stranger and creating multiple accessible routes on and off the property, according to Thoren. 

The majority of members of the group are large animal owners, but it is not a requirement. Members are trained in CPR and first aid, and get Community Emergency Response Team training and learn to use amateur radio. They are also certified in a variety of courses provided by Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

Last year’s deadly Camp Fire in Butte County highlighted the need to have safety measures in place for large animals, such as horses. 

“On the Coastside, animals are such an important part of this community. Whether it’s a rancher who has a lot of money invested in his cattle or it’s a private horse owner, people are not going to want to leave their property if there’s a fire going without taking their animals,” Thoren said. 

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