Pictured: Would your horse load easily in an emergency? Practicing trailer loading can help them learn to be calm in the trailer.
by Kimberly Rivers
Residents of Ventura County know it’s not a matter of “if” but “when” the next fire burns in the county. While the wildfires currently scourging the western United States aren’t currently lit in Ventura County, Ventura County Animal Services and the Humane Society Ventura County are asking residents to be ready by making sure they have plans and supplies in place for their pets to evacuate, and encouraging them to volunteer for evacuation training now.
“Now is the time to volunteer, we can’t train you during an emergency,” said Randy Freeman, marketing manager for Ventura County Animal Services (VCAS), which oversees the Emergency Volunteer Rescue Team (EVRT). EVRT is a volunteer-based program that is activated during all declared disaster events that may require large animal and livestock evacuations. EVRT has a focus on evacuation and sheltering horses, but has also moved alpacas, sheep, goats, emus and donkeys.“The volunteers really are our unsung heroes in our emergency responses.”
There are currently about 40 to 50 active EVRT volunteers in the county who have completed the training program and are ready to be activated when needed.
Freeman encouraged those who want to help to volunteer now, and to not just start trying to evacuate animals during an emergency. EVRT volunteers are in close communication with incident command so they know which roads are open and safe to travel on, and which only allow authorized vehicles to pass. He said during recent events some people falsely claimed to be with EVRT in order to get through road closures; this just makes more work for law enforcement and puts more cars in areas where the public shouldn’t be.
The best volunteers for EVRT are people with three-horse trailers and those who have experience loading frightened horses, said Freeman. The important skill of “know[ing] how to back up on a windy one-lane road” with a horse trailer can be very useful, too.
“Our biggest need is somebody who can really be that one person [to] go in there, get the animals and bring them to an evacuation point, usually at the Ventura County Fairgrounds,” said Freeman. “It’s important to mention that our services are really for people who don’t have transportation for their pets.”
Practice loading your horses
One important thing horse owners can do now to prepare is to “practice loading your animals. [Many] horse owners don’t really practice. We spend time with [our horses], ride them, but don’t practice loading. If your horse or livestock is not used to being loaded, it can be more difficult when they are being evacuated, with smoke in the air, someone trying to pull them. They feed on your energy. Practice once a week, get them loaded, close the door behind them . . . so they get used to that and are not freaked out on the day of.”
He said some horse owners seem to not think that “fire will come into their area. Fires happen in those interface areas, space between urban and rural. That is exactly where there are people who have livestock.”
HSVC also activates and deploys officers to assist in evacuation, placement and sheltering of animals during evacuations. Both EVRT and HSVC have been assisting animal owners since the 1985 Wheeler Fire, ignited by arson in Wheeler Canyon, northwest of Ojai.
“The HSVC was very busy sheltering animals during the Wheeler Fire of 1985,” said Jolene Hoffman, shelter director. “We had over 170 dogs, 150 cats and about 35 horses that we took in during the 15-day fire that burned around the Ojai Valley.” Last year, HSVC sheltered 284 animals and they are increasing capacity to shelter more animals.
“In every major incident in our county, we had dozens of EVRT members out there,” said Freeman. They are deployed from the shelter in Camarillo, and a special animal services officer is assigned to handle deployment, communicating closely with law enforcement and fire department command. “They are there shoulder-to-shoulder with our dispatch . . . and sometimes we have an EVRT team at evacuation destinations.” The EVRT team conducts the intake of evacuated animals and provides security. Owners should know that their horses are “safe, secure and being taken care of.” Owners can stay and care for their own horses, but sometimes during an emergency they have to rely on EVRT members.
EVRT also manages the intake of animals brought in by owners who are able to transport their horses but unable to shelter them elsewhere during the emergency.
Freeman emphasized the importance of having a way to link yourself to your horse once you are ready to take them home. This can include registration papers, microchip information, photographs of you with your horse. Every horse brought to an evacuation center is photographed by the EVRT team. If the owner is with the horse, they are photographed also. Even with technology today, he said the best link is that “Polaroid photo” they take at the sheltering site.
Animals, like people, can be stressed by evacuations. The HSVC reminds pet owners to keep an eye on their pets throughout the event and upon return home.
For more information on disaster preparedness from the Humane Society Ventura County visit: hsvc.org/disaster_preparedness.
Those 18 and over can apply to be an EVRT volunteer online at: www.vcas.us/emergency-volunteer-rescue-team/ .