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As California Wildfires Rage, Volunteers Breathlessly Race to Save Horses

There are currently eight wildfires in California that have blazed across almost 91,000 combined acres. While local residents continue to evacuate, horse rescue groups are descending upon the ravaged areas to save as many lives as possible. Grit Daily spoke to some of the people on the front lines to find out how they find and evacuate horses that their owners had to leave behind.

Horse Rescue Groups Mobilize in California

When wildfires begin, horse rescue groups like Southern California Equine Emergency Evacuation (SCEEE) and Cowboy 911 gather volunteers and head out in force.

Gail Gardner, a volunteer for Cowboy 911 and SCEEE, explained that these groups “work closely with law enforcement and fire departments” to determine where to send volunteers. Additionally, they prioritize their efforts by starting in the mandatory evacuation zones.

“They stage trucks and horse trailers at a meeting point near each evacuation zone,” Gardner said. “There is a dispatcher who directs [volunteers] where to go.”

Whenever possible, evacuated horses go to official locations like racetracks and county fairgrounds. Although many privately owned, non-official locations offer their services as well, Gardener says, “there have been some issues with theft [in the past].” As a result, official locations provide the majority of spots for evacuated equines.

How Do Horses Get Left Behind in California Wildfires?

In some instances, horse owners aren’t home when a fire breaks out. Roadblocks often inhibit these owners from returning. Additionally, many people who own horses don’t own enough trailers to transport all of their animals to safety. That’s where volunteers come in. But even official rescue groups often have a rough time getting to horses in need.

“Not just anyone can get in to evacuate,” Gardner explained. “You have to either live there – and sometimes that doesn’t work – or have official assistance to get in or have someone who knows how to get around the roadblocks. Sometimes, no one can get in or out, so people who are inside will go around and feed, water, and check on animals trapped inside.”

Why Don’t Horse Owners Evacuate Sooner?

Per Gardner, one of the most commonly asked questions is “why didn’t they evacuate sooner?” The problem, she said, “is when there are fires all around you, you don’t know which direction they’ll burn if the wind changes. Often, evacuated animals end up having to be evacuated again from the so-called safe place you moved them.”

Worsening matters is the fact that many horses have no experience with trailers, and some don’t know how to lead. Dogs can help herd horses in these instances, which is a tactic that Cowboy 911 often employs.

How Do Horse Rescue Groups Get Started?

Those who volunteer with SCEEE and Cowboy 911 receive training and certifications, as needed. All Cowboy 911 volunteers go through the FEMA-required Instant Command System training.

Stacy Kendall, the founder of SCEEE, started the horse rescue group in 2009 during the Station Fire. Kendall said, “I created the network with nine close friends who were excellent hands with fractious and difficult to load horses. We now have more than 14,000 members and are growing daily.”

Cowboy 911 members Jill Pierre and Justin Jones said that their non-profit, volunteer-run organization began with the goal of “assisting horse owners who were traveling and broke down or needed any kind of assistance in emergencies.”

Pierre and Jones elaborated that “farmers and ranchers have always helped each other out…this is what our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents have always done.” Much like SCEEE, Cowboy 911’s membership has grown quickly. They now have almost 29,000 members in their Facebook Group.

During 2018’s deadly Camp Fire disaster, Cowboy 911 evacuated thousands of animals because local officials didn’t have the proper resources to do so themselves. Rescuing horses often helps rescue humans too, as many owners refuse to leave without them.

Equine Instincts can Complicate Rescues

“Horses tend to run back to where they feel safe,” Gardner said. “And sadly, that is often their stall even when the barn is on fire.”

The tendency to run back toward their stall caused 25 horse deaths when a fire broke out in 2017 at San Luis Rey Downs. As a recent viral video showed, though, some horses will run back toward a fire for much more altruistic reasons. One horse in Ventura County ran away from safety and back toward two other horses. As soon as the three came together, they all ran toward the evacuation trailers.

Another comment from Gardner may explain the heroic horse’s actions:

“Horses are herd animals, so often you get loose horses to follow a horse being led. That helps move them around and can also get them to load in unfamiliar trailers.”

Although the horse in the video wasn’t being led, it clearly understood the importance of herding other equines and leading them to safety.

Are Wildfires the New Normal for California?

A recent study found that the rate of wildfires in California has increased by fivefold since the 1970s. Rising temperatures, combined with a moisture deficit, create the perfect storm of events for wildfires to spark. If the relative humidity stays low, brush will keep drying out quickly, thereby creating kindling.

Due to these climate change impacts, California’s fire season has already expanded by two to three months annually. The state has experienced 15 of its worst 20 wildfires during the past two decades. As climate expert, Jeff Berardelli said, “This will only get worse in the future. [Climate change] makes these generally controllable fires uncontrollable.”

Getting Help for Local Horses

If there are horses in your local area that need assistance evacuating, you can head to Facebook for help. SCEEE runs a private group where people can post their horse evacuation requests. Cowboy 911 also has a Facebook Group. Alternatively, those living in Ventura County can call a rescue dispatcher at (805) 388-4265. Anyone who would like to donate to these animal rescue organizations should also head to their Facebook Groups.

As Grit Daily previously pointed out, many others are doing what they can to help during this catastrophic wildfire season. For example, LeBron James sent taco trucks to feed firefighters battling the Getty Fire.