October 2020 - The Gallop: Past at Forefront of Today’s Fire Fights
Written by by Kim F Miller
Thursday, 01 October 2020 17:04
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The upside of extensive fire experience is life-saving preparedness.

by Kim F Miller

Claudia Sonder, DVM, has been at the heart of California’s evolving response to fires as they relate to horses for several years. In “normal” times, she is the partner-owner of Napa Valley Equine, but during the ever-expanding fire season, she’s command central as the Northern California Association of Equine Practitioners’ Disaster Response Committee chair.

The only upside of the state’s devastating fires in the last decade is how they served to inspire preparedness measures among community groups and individual horse owners.

 


Blazes throughout the state marked a full month of burn as California Riding Magazine went to press in mid-September. Even as more people step up to receive various levels of training to assist horses in a disaster, there are still many who believe “it can’t happen to me,” Dr. Sonder reports. Part of the problem is the lack of government-backed assistance for large animal rescue, she explains. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the PETS Act authorized the Federal Emergency Management Association to provide rescue, care, shelter and essential needs for individuals with household pets and service animals and to the animals themselves. There is no federal funding equivalent for large animals, the veterinarian notes.

 

Yet, remarkable strides have been made in multi-agency efforts to help large animals, often through Community Animal Response Teams (CART), that are similar to Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) that exist in many counties.

California Riding Magazine editor Kim F Miller appreciated Dr. Sonder’s time in sharing the evolution of Northern California’s life-saving response to the recent and current fires. Plus, suggestions for getting involved and, most importantly, being prepared horse owners.
    

Kim: How did you get into being a point person for community efforts to help horses in disasters?
Dr. Sonder: I’ve been in the Napa area since 1997 and had experienced a few small fires and helped with some evacuations. Really, all of my knowledge and experience of how to do it came from UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, where I served as director of Equine Health for several years. In 2013 or 2014, we did a lot of research to write an article on preparing for and helping horses in disaster. (When Disaster Strikes, What Will You Do?) That was my first exposure to CART, an organized response to disasters.
In 2014, the Valley Fire in Lake County became my first exposure to a “run for your life” evacuation. Being in neighboring Napa County, we ended up supporting Lake County efforts and that spooled out into the CART program and the NorCal Equine Trailer.
It took that kind of fire for myself and Napa County to realize the need to plan for these kind of things. Fortunately, Napa County has forward-thinking leadership and they all saw the incredible need for large animal shelter support. We all sat down and said, “Let’s come up with a system so if this happens again, we’ll have the ability to take in hundreds of horses on short notice.”
Sure enough, in 2017, the Wine Country firestorm hit Napa. I think we evacuated 400 horses in 24 hours and, in the end, we had 800 horses sheltered in Napa County. We could do that because we had laid the foundation by pre-designating where the shelters should be and having teams ready to go.
    

Kim: I gather this involves working with various government agencies.
Dr. Sonder: Yes. In the research we did for the 2014 UC Davis Horse Report article, we learned a lot from people in Southern California, where there’d been so many fires. A top thing we learned is that their efforts were well integrated with their local government.
We get a lot of people asking about CARTs, and the first thing to do is go talk to your area’s Animal Control Department. You want a plan that is tied into the actual emergency action plan for your area.
    
Kim: What roles exist within the network of volunteers required to assist horses in a disaster?
Dr. Sonder: Plenty! Some of my best volunteers are long time horse people who know how to safely handle excited horses during an adrenalized evacuation. These are people willing to take the time to go through the training required to be safe going into a fire zone. The county requires this of volunteers heading into to help in “warm zones,” areas where a fire has burned over.
    

Kim: What’s the general time commitment to receive that training?
Dr. Sonder: The CERT training is the first step and requires 20 hours. On top of that is an additional 10 to 20 hours a year to do the different tasks related to horses. If you work on a phone hotline or dispatch, for example, you don’t need as much equine experience. If you are going to work at an equine shelter, then you need training to stay safe around those animals, to know about biosecurity measures and other things. For animal search and rescue and evacuation, you need all the training that keeps you safe in a warm zone.
Once you complete that training, the county will issue you an ID badge or, in our case, a vest, that identifies you to people working the fire line or blockade.
    
Kim: Do you have enough trained volunteers?
Dr. Sonder: In traditional fires in the past, we have had enough people to get the work done. With COVID, our volunteer base is almost cut in half because the majority of people who’ve had the training fall into that upper risk age bracket: a lot are retired. And then there is the size of the fire. In 2018, the Camp fire and right now, the North Fire in Butte County, they’re just too big.
CARTs all across California are working together to create a system for mutual aid. So, the leader in Butte County can call me and say, “I need 10 animal search and rescue volunteers.” We have the same training system, so I know exactly what she needs. That’s how we are handling these huge fires.

Kim: I understand the NCAEP’s Emergency Response Trailer is critical to successful responses. Tell us about that.
Dr. Sonder: It’s an amazing trailer. It was donated in 2018 by the West Coast Equestrian Federation affiliated with Murieta Equestrian Center, Carol Ward and from the Trailer Specialist after the Valley Fire. We realized we needed a mechanism to have a medical hub for animals at the shelters. It is supported by many of NCAEP’s educational partners, who are the big equine and livestock pharmaceutical companies. They actually donate product to fill the trailer, so we have all the emergency drugs to care for the shelter horses in the field, and without the owner ever receiving a bill for it. Member veterinarians volunteer for shifts and a great thing about the trailer is that our vets can actually work out of it, keeping records, etc. If a shelter manager is worried about a horse, they can write the number on a board and the vet on duty will go check on it.
It’s a big, 30’ trailer. We have key people that volunteer to haul it. Boehringer Ingelheim’s Brent Brown is one who drops everything to get the trailer where it needs to be.
(At press time, the Trailer had been based in Butte County for a week and counting.)

Kim: How can horse owners be better prepared?
Dr. Sonder:
•    So often we talk about disaster preparedness without talking about preparing the horse. Make sure your horse will load in the trailer -- not just with you: with someone else. Practice in circumstances you might face: in the middle of the night, in a rush, with lights, headlamps, etc.
•    Get your horse used to being in a confined space. In these last two major fie events, horses have been in 12 x 12 pens for 14 days. Get them as well socialized as you can.
•    Microchip your horses, so they are easy to track.
•    Have a picture of you and your horse together. Create an info sheet with your horse’s name, age, what he eats, allergies, vet, vaccine status, etc. Laminate it. When you come to the shelter, you can hand it over to the manager and they’ll know everything they need to about your horse.
•    Have some hay ready for your horse and bring it to the shelter. The main reason we see so many colics is because the change in feed adds to the perfect storm of conditions.
•    LEAVE EARLY!

Kim: Thank you so much for talking to me and for everything that you and your colleagues do for our horses!
Dr. Sonder: You are welcome!

Donations for the NCAEP’s Emergency Response Trailer are greatly appreciated. https://www.norcalaep.org/donate/

Claudia Sonder, DVM. Photo: ©2011 UC Regents - by Don Preisler


The Gallop welcomes news, tips and photos. Contact Kim F Miller at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .