5 Lessons from the Detwiler Fire Every Horse Owner Should Know

By: Mariposa County Sheriff’s Posse


Fire, few words evoke a stronger image of destruction, fear and death. Fire is every rancher’s and farmer’s fear. The potential for loss of crops, animals and forage is devastating and long-lasting. For those of us in the foothills, the six words we never want to hear are “you are under mandatory evacuation orders.” While fire is a scary prospect for every resident in this area, it is even more daunting for those who need to consider the safety of horses and other large animals.

Between July 16 and August 24, thousands of people were given the order to evacuate during the devastating Detwiler Fire. The fire burned 81,826 acres, destroyed 74 homes, damaged an additional 22 homes and destroyed and/or damaged an additional 205 structures. There were 544 large and small animals evacuated by owners, Mariposa Animal Control, Mariposa Sheriff’s Posse, and Mutual Aide Animal Control Agencies to five different Evacuation locations. This does not include the multitude of animals that were evacuated by owners to private homes and ranches or the animals cared for in the field.

This article contains five key takeaways Animal Control and Posse feel that every horse owner should know to ensure a seamless and safe evacuation for themselves and their animals.

  1. Have a plan. Determine how you will get all your animals to safety and whether you will need help. If you have more animals than trailers, do you have capable and available friends and family who can assist or will you require the assistance of Animal Control? Do your friends or family have available pens? If you are on a lot of acreage be sure to have a catch pen so you can bring your horse in from pasture well before evacuating. Once you have all the specifics sorted out, keep critical phone numbers handy. Call and confirm with your friends and family at the start of the fire season and at the onset of each fire that you can move your horses to their place if needed. Situations can change; people get sick, go out of town, etc. If you don’t have any place to take your livestock, Animal Control will have Evacuation location(s) set up. Evacuation Centers for livestock are similar to Red Cross shelters for people and are well staffed. While almost all horse owners would rather give than receive, in a fire you must rely on others to temporarily house your horse(s).


  1. Have a plan B. Go through all the “what if” scenarios of plan A. What if your truck is in the shop? What if your trailer is loaned out to a friend?  What if where you took your horses gets evacuated?  What if your friends or family cannot take your animals as planned?  What if your escape route is blocked or you need to ride your horses out. Think about every possible scenario and how you will respond. Between plan A and plan B you will be well prepared.


  1. Have an evacuation kit. This should include three things 1) your personal evacuation kit (change of clothes, prescription medicines, irreplaceable photos and documents, etc.) 2) an evacuation kit for your animals possibly including electrolytes, calming and prescription meds, specialized feed, extra halters, lead ropes, etc. along with any special instructions about administering medicine 3) Your equine emergency kit. If you don’t have an equine emergency kit, consult with your vet or check some of the many online resources that contain a list of items to keep on hand. Be sure to keep all three kits (except hay and grain) in the house or other temperature-controlled environment. If your horse has ever been injured in the trailer, pack additional supplies such as triple antibiotic ointment, instant ice, wraps, bandages, etc. Vets are extremely busy during fires, and anything you can do to avoid a vet call or start treatment before the vet arrives will be beneficial.


  1. Practice, practice, practice. To avoid stress and injury to your animal, a fire is not the time to train your horse. It is vital that your horse can be haltered, led and trailered by anyone. Imagine getting a call along the lines of “My three-year old stud colt is out on 40 acres. He has never been haltered, led or trailered can you help us evacuate?” Practice loading your horse in different types of trailers including stock, side-by-side and slant load, ramp, and step up. Have other people you trust load your horse without you. The additional stress on the horse and cost to the owner can be avoided with ongoing practice. In an evacuation scenario, horses will need to be led to their pens, and that may include walking past other horses, donkeys, mules, goats, sheep, groups of people, vehicles, and possibly sirens and moving vehicles. Practice loading and unloading your horse (s) at night, in the dark. Do whatever you can to practice walking your horse by all types of distractions to get them to load.


  1. Safely evacuating. We are often asked, “when is the right time to evacuate?” and our answer is typically, “before you need to” While every fire is different, think about all your livestock and assets. Consider how many animals you have and if you can evacuate in one trip or need to come back multiple times. Think about the time it takes to load your animals. Keep in mind that they will be stressed out and relying on you to help them. Add in extra time to load your horses. Fires move fast and change direction quickly and without warning. At one point, the Detwiler Fire was moving at a pace of 2 miles every 30 minutes. Think about road closures and detours. Don’t wait until you hear the dreaded six words. Get out safely and early. You will never regret getting out too soon, but you may regret getting out at the last minute or too late. If the fire turns quickly and there is no way to safely get your animals out without risking your own life – do not leave them tethered. They have a better chance of survival if they can run away from the fire. If you must do this, use safe, nonflammable paint or a marketing pen and in large writing put your phone number on the side of the horse. Then alert Animal Control as you evacuate so they can move in when it is safe to try to retrieve your animal.

With these five steps you will be ready to move your horse(s) safely and quickly to safety. If you have any questions about fire evacuations in your area contact your local sheriff’s office or local Animal Control Office.

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