When the Unthinkable Happens

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Every geographical location has its threat of natural disasters. As a barn manager, it is important to know what disasters may hit your area and how to prepare for them. In California, we must always be prepared for wildfires. We cannot predict when or where a fire will start, which is why I feel that one can never be too prepared or too cautious when it comes to disaster preparedness. So, when a wildfire hit our canyon on Oct. 12, 2008, I was confident of my plan and sure I would save my horses. Yet, we almost didn’t get all our horses safely off the property. Now, I have refined my evacuation plan. Here is my story.

I own, manage and operate an 11-acre horse stable in the Los Angeles area. Goldspirit Farm is located in Kagel Canyon, where the property abuts the Angeles National Forest. We are adamant about brush clearance on the hills around our house and barn, and I keep the horse areas clean and free of debris and weeds. To ensure safety of access to horses, I do not allow tack trunks or any other items to be kept in any barn aisles. The only vegetation within 100 feet of the house and horse facilities are green trees or small shrubs. We have two points of access in and out of the property, with plenty of space for horse trailers and fire trucks to enter and safely turn around.

In the early morning hours when the fire started, my husband and I were awakened by the sound of water-dropping helicopters flying back and forth over our house. We knew what was happening. We were experiencing high winds and low humidity. In addition, our entire area has not burned in nearly 40 years. This was a recipe for disaster. I immediately initiated my fire safety plan.

Step one is to assess the situation. Climbing the hill on the east side of the property, we could tell the fire was two canyons away, with winds blowing southeast. The fire was moving away from us, for the moment. Perhaps we would be safe, I thought. Since fires create their own winds and their path can change at any moment, I still had to plan for the worst.

I started step two: Call for help in evacuating horses. I have an evacuation sheet with phone numbers of whom to call, and directions on where to take the horses. This sheet is by every phone at the barn and house.

This list includes the phone number of the fire department, but I assumed they knew about the fire. However, they didn’t know I needed to evacuate 25 horses. This led to my first correction to my plan: call the fire department and animal control to alert them I need to evacuate. Still, I did call my friends who had volunteered to be on my hauling list. In 10 minutes I had five haulers on their way up the canyon.

Step three of a good evacuation plan is to prepare the property to fight the fire and provide access to the haulers and fire department. First, I opened my electric gate and set the gate to remain open. In hindsight, I realize I should have disconnected the electricity to the gate. Our gate seems to have a mind of its own. And sure enough, just when the fire trucks wanted to enter the property, the gate started to close. The fireman tried to force the gate open, pushing it off the track and nearly destroying the gate in the process. Luckily, I was there to disconnect the gate.

Next, I turned on all the lights. When a fire hits your area at night or close to dusk, turn on everything. You know your property, but the firemen don’t. They need to know where the buildings are. In the dark, with dusty winds whipping through, they can’t see your barn, tack room, or house. They also need to see where you have hoses and where your water supply is located.

While I turned on the lights, my husband prepared the rest of the property. He moved all vehicles to an open space away from any ingress and egress, because of the gasoline in their tanks. He also unrolled all the hoses around the barn and house to make sure they had no kinks and were ready for use.

Step four of my safety plan is to prepare the horses for evacuation. We have 25 horses in two barns. I immediately started to halter every horse, and hang the lead rope over the stall door. That was the most important thing I did. When we were in the final hour of evacuating horses, with fire racing down the hillside and embers flying on the horse’s backs, they were all haltered and ready to go.

Each horse in our barn has a halter with a nametag and an ID tag. The ID tag is a small reflective dog tag. On one side it has a label with the barn name, address and telephone number. This is an inexpensive way to identify your horses in case of fire or other emergency that causes an evacuation. In addition to haltering the horses, I also took their blankets off, as nylon blankets are susceptible to melting if caught on fire. I was ready.

The first person to arrive was the driver of my truck and trailer. Since I knew that there would be an evacuation order for residents to leave and not be permitted to return during the fire, my evacuation plan includes a driver for my rig. We loaded the first trailer and minutes later the other four haulers arrived. In total, we had room for 16 horses. How do you decide who to load first?

There is no time to draw straws or play rock-paper-scissors. I had to act fast and diplomatically. First to leave were the four best show horses. They included two of my own and two client horses. I wanted to make sure, in case the driver did not have help (he knew next to nothing about horses), that the horses would nearly unload themselves and put themselves in a stall. Next, I let all my client horses go first. The most expensive and the youngest were all loaded. Of the nine remaining horses, five were mine, the other four were all nearly or over 20 years of age.

Since the sheriff was evacuating people from the canyon and emergency crews were already actively fighting the fire in the lower portion of the canyon, it looked dismal for the return of my evacuation crew. I was sure I was stuck on my farm with the last nine horses. So, I activated plan B: Move all the horses into the two large turnouts in the middle of the farm. While they would be exposed to smoke and flying embers there was little that could catch on fire. Their stalls, on the other hand, were dangerous. The fire did pass through the barn and pipe corrals and ignited all the shavings. It is not a good plan to keep horses in their stalls during a fire.

Luckily, in our case, the sheriff finally allowed trailers up the canyon. Just before the fire passed through the farm, we evacuated the remaining horses. I am happy to report that, while we sustained minor damage, all the buildings were saved, including my home.

I always thought I was ready for a fire on the farm, and I was very on-purpose when it came to getting the barn ready and the horses off the property. It was easy because the flames were not visible from the farm. But, by the time we loaded the last of the horses, the fire was on my property. The hillside was on fire; the shavings bin was in flames; blowing embers ignited random plants around the property. It was horrifying! I was not mentally ready to see my property, my livelihood and home, actually in flames. It was a very scary and humbling experience. Had I not had a plan and great help we might not have been so fortunate.

Lessons Learned

I know that fires will ignite again and that we need to be even better prepared. When the fire was on the property I could not find some of the items I needed, like a headlamp or gloves. They were all in my trailer, which left the farm with the first load of horses. Now, I have a fire kit at the barn.

My fire kit is made of a metal toolbox with the words “fire kit” on the outside. It is in an easily accessible location for anyone to use. Here are the items in my kit:

• two headlamps with working batteries

• flashlight w/working batteries

• two walkie-talkies

• goggles, gloves and a hat

• two writing pens, two markers, and a few small sheets of paper

• duct tape and labels with barn information pre-printed (for stall doors and halters)

• phone list of all students and boarders

• copy of the evacuation list

• feed chart for horses

• business cards

• a reminder note to grab the cell phone, bluetooth, and phone charger for the car

• eye drops and Chapstick

• a note to remind myself I am strong and I can do this (It can’t hurt!)

Finally, being ready for a fire starts with planning ahead before a fire starts. That means:

• Keep the barn aisles clean of debris and tack.

• Keep a halter on every stall door.

• Maintain vegetation clearance around all buildings, barns, and driveways.

• Keep plenty of hoses around the barn.

• Have an evacuation list next to every phone and in your daily planner.

• Have a working phone on the property.

• Keep your trailer in working order, and hooked-up during fire season.

• Have a written plan, and stick to it.

And last but not least, have great people to help, as we did with our boarders at Goldspirit Farm.