BC Horse Community on Alert!

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2017 Wildfire Season the Worst on Record

By Margaret Evans 

As livestock and property owners worriedly watch the skies praying for rain, the wildfire season in British Columbia shows no sign of abating and could continue until the first snows fly. According to the BC Wildfire Service, the 2017 wildfire season is officially the worst on record in the province.

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Photo: BC Wildfire Service

As of August 30st, the number of fires since April 1st totals 1,155, with 1,059,093 hectares (10,591 square kilometres) burned, and some 145 wildfires still burning. Over 3,915 firefighters and other personnel are fighting the fires, including 881 from out-of-province and 1,530 contractors. About 179 helicopters and planes are supporting all the ground crews and at this time there are 2,182 evacuees, 16 evacuation orders, and 40 evacuation alerts in effect.

“We have been on evacuation alert for two months now, with all of our valuable belongings in our travel trailer,” says Lynda Atkinson who lives in the Quesnel area and is Vice President of Industry for Horse Council, BC. “We learned very quickly that there isn’t much that we could take with us, and we really don’t have a lot of valuable things. We did evacuate our five mares and foals. Wonderful people came and picked them up and more wonderful people kept them for us for the first three weeks when the fire was most active on Green Mountain. I also learned that many of my neighbours do not have fire insurance, partly because farm insurance is so expensive to begin with, but almost impossible to get if you are outside of a fire district or heat with wood. Neighbours do work together to make sure everyone is taken care of, and for that I am truly grateful.”

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Photo: BC Wildfire Service

Further south in Barriere, conditions too were rapidly deteriorating.

“On July 7, wildfires 15 minutes north of Barriere (seven kilometres north of where we live in Louis Creek) caused numerous evacuations in the Little Fort (Thuya Creek Fire) and two Dunn Lake (Dunn Lake fire) areas,” says Jill Hayward, evacuation coordinator for Barriere Fairgrounds. “Both people and livestock were forced to leave their properties in the dark, fleeing north to Clearwater or south to Barriere. Many (both people and livestock) came to the North Thompson Fall Fairgrounds in Barriere. Just a few days later the evacuations started again, this time from the Clinton area. By mid-July we were caring for 378 animals at the fairgrounds, 80 percent were horses.”

Hayward says that Barriere caught its share of the smoke from the fires in the North Thompson and the Cariboo. While prevailing winds made some days smoke-free, when it settled on the town, people’s eyes burned and those with breathing difficulties experienced real discomfort. But among the livestock in their care, only a few had smoke problems.

“One evacuee, a 35-year-old mare with chronic COPD found the smoke a struggle even though she was in a barn with no dust, soaked hay, etc.,” says Hayward. “Under vet care we medicated her to help with breathing, but it was a struggle for her to draw breath. With her owner’s consent, she was humanely euthanized. Another evacuated Appaloosa mare developed a harsh cough from the smoke and she was also stalled for two weeks following the same regime as the previous horse. We were all very happy when she was able to go back with her equine friends in the sunshine and run around like a foal with no more sign of breathing distress. We have also had a few horses that have red weepy eyes from the smoke, which we have treated with eye drops and daily maintenance. Also, some goats and a sheep found the smoke irritating to respiratory organs but they have all recovered well. I think our volunteers had more reaction to it, myself included.” Hayward explains that she had to use a Ventolin puffer twice a day for a week after virtually living outdoors at the fairgrounds for several days.

The smoke was just as much a health hazard in the Quesnel area.

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Steven Dubas reported that the Prince George Evacuation Centre on July 12 was well organized, with over 220 horses on site and room for more. A number of trailers were ready to go if needed to pick up more horses in Williams Lake. Photos: Steven Dubas 

“The smoke is omnipresent,” says Atkinson. “It meant that we couldn’t exercise our horses, and had to watch very carefully with all of our animals, especially the pregnant cows and horses [to see] that they were not stressed at all. Dealing with the smoke was as much as they could take. We haven’t pregnancy-checked our animals, so we don’t know if any of them lost their babies, which I understand may be a real possibility.”

In-your-face danger from the flaming trees, billowing smoke, suffocating heat and dryness, the tinder-dry forest ready to explode, the threat of lightning, the endless worry as to when it will rain and when it will all end is stressful for everyone. Yet each person responds to the urgency in different ways.

The Haywards had experienced the 2003 McLure Wildfire when it roared over the mountains and hillsides in a rolling wave of fire travelling at 60 km/hour. It was surrounding their 320-acre ranch while they were loading 75 head of cows and calves and 16 horses.

“It was so hot it took your breath away and the noise of the fire across the river was like standing next to a locomotive running at full throttle. I’m sure we set records for the fasting loading of livestock and not one animal hesitated to get in the trailers. Many of them had never seen a trailer, let alone a stall. They were amazing.”

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Photo: BC Wildfire Service

That experience provided insight as to what to expect this summer.

“Quite honestly, for myself and my husband the wildfires trigger a sense of purpose – we’ve been there, done that, know what to expect – and move forward with a plan to be prepared. One thing we came away with from 2003 was the lesson that when a wildfire threatens you and your home, your job is to evacuate as quickly and calmly as possible with what is important - THE PEOPLE AND THE ANIMALS. Everything else is just stuff! Stuff can be replaced - life cannot. I feel it’s really important to present an insight into what happens when a family’s safety, home, and animals are threatened in such a catastrophic way. We hear so many people say they are going to stay and protect their property - some have done that and lived to tell the tale. They must have horseshoes in their shorts because after you stand next to a ‘rank 6’ wildfire and live to tell the tale, you have been blessed. Standing up to it with a garden hose is nuts – get out and get to a safe place - your family will appreciate that action much more than attending your funeral.”

Yet many, especially farmers and ranchers, will not evacuate unless the circumstances are so extreme that they have no other alternative.

In the Chilcotin, the million-acre Gang Ranch has had an evacuation order in the face of a massive fire 24 kilometres wide and 48 kilometres long, which has already burned some 100,000 acres of pasture. But ranch manager Larry Ramsted, his wife Bev, cowboys and ranch hands have stayed and are furiously working to protect 5,000 head of cattle and 200 horses on the range. Access to water is a massive issue. With no rain this summer, the water level from the river is below the intake valve. The cowboys have pulled the shoes on all their horses to prevent a spark from stones on the trails as they work to drive the cattle away from the direction of the fire. They know some have been lost, but they won’t have a real number until they do the gather in the fall.

“There are countless examples of ranchers in this season who stayed and defended their properties and managed to save their ranches, or at least the infrastructure, livestock at home, and equipment,” says Atkinson. “No one died, so far, and many homes and barns were saved because of these so-called garden hose heroes, although I call them D9 cat heroes, skidder heroes, tractor heroes, irrigation pump heroes, because ranchers are much better equipped than others think.”

An evacuation alert is a trigger for several things to happen. Make a plan for yourself and your animals, and implement the plan early. Decide what to pack into the grab-and-go pack for humans, pets, and horses. Once an alert becomes an order you may only have minutes or maybe a few hours. Keep the gas tanks in your vehicles full all the time and add some jerry cans too if necessary, securely tied in the truck box. If the power goes out the gas stations can’t pump fuel. Keep cash on hand as the bank ATMs will be down. Be prepared for cell towers to go down. If an entire town is evacuated, as in the case of Williams Lake, the traffic jams can be huge.

For livestock, have enough halters and shanks for each one as well as identifying information, your name, and your phone number taped to each halter. Make sure the animal will load. Any medications needed should be kept with you, and make a note on the animal’s ID that you have the needed medication.

Planning is everything, but planning for your own peace of mind can be more challenging.

The hardest thing, I think, is the day after day stress,” says Atkinson. “Will the wind change, will the fire come down our side of the mountain, and if it doesn’t, how are our friends on the other side doing?”

The time to go is the time to go.

“When you are evacuated you are told exactly which roads to use and, in the case of Williams Lake, there were police officers at every side road, so even if you thought you knew a better way there was no way the security forces would let you go,” says Atkinson. “In one situation, they had to go through a hay field to evacuate. After an evacuation, barriers are set up not allowing anyone back into the area. So, if you evacuate and think you can come back to feed or get your pets or horses, you may not get back for days or, in the case of the people in Williams Lake, it was two weeks. If you do decide to stay rather than evacuate, realize you may not have power and you will not be allowed to leave your property. The police and military are very serious about maintaining security. They may ribbon off your property to signify that they have given you orders and you are still home.”

During an evacuation, horses need special consideration starting with the fact, as Atkinson points out, that they are livestock, not pets. They need a coordinated plan and the resources to make it happen, especially if there are many horses to be moved.

“In our case, with a stallion as one of our group, even though he is extremely well-mannered the possibility of housing him in a community evacuation program would be impossible,” says Atkinson who raises Standardbreds for racing. “They (caretakers) started to visibly sweat when we explained our situation. Mares with foals was a big enough hassle as foals can so easily be hurt and can’t be crowded in a trailer. We did have a plan for him – our stallion would stay with us in the stock trailer and be picketed out. We have camped a lot with our horses and they are somewhat used to that. They all know what hobbles are and will stand tied if necessary.”

Hayward agrees.

“If you have animals at pasture and have transport coming, pen them into small areas or catch and tie them up so they do not run off or prove impossible to catch when strangers arrive with strange looking vehicles,” she says. “Remember you will be excited, probably the people who come will be charged as well - this is a recipe for “catch me if you can,” and you will have no time to play that game. If you have room, make sure you throw in a couple of meals for the livestock, and even a few big jugs of water in case you have a breakdown or get stuck somewhere in the heat, so you can hydrate the livestock as well as the people. Medications for people and livestock - we have had a few animals arrive that were on pain meds - but they didn’t come with the meds. Make sure you have an animal first aid kit that works for whatever livestock you are carrying. Livestock registration papers should be just as important as your own birth certificates and insurance papers, also livestock record books as they are not replaceable after a fire.”

It’s clear that the wildfire season has had a devastating effect on many businesses, especially those catering to tourists in the most critical time of the year. At 70 Mile House, the Flying U Ranch on Green Lake had to evacuate 116 horses, twice.

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The outdoor rodeo arena at the Barriere Fairgrounds housed the 116 horses of the Flying U Ranch at 70 Mile House, which was evacuated twice and lost two months of their busiest season. Photo: Jill Hayward 

“We lost almost two full months of our busiest season due to being closed because of the evacuations,” says Victoria Gallant with the Flying U. “We are now back up and running but with less guests than originally were booked.”

Atkinson says that the combination of little snow over the winter and drought in June and July have made this a wildfire season no one will forget.

“My hope is that we all work harder to fire-safe our properties and that we can develop a fire fighting protocol that takes into account the fact that ranchers and farmers are very reluctant to abandon their properties when ordered to do so. I also hope that either the government through the Business Risk Management branch or even insurance companies consider giving incentives for agricultural properties that are fire-safed.”

The wildfire season this year has been truly horrific for everyone. A report in the Vancouver Sun dated August 25th and written by Larry Pynn documented a band of 10 horses trapped and burned to death by the raging fire in Chilcotin’s Nemaiah Valley. They were caught by the Hanceville-Riske Creek fire southwest of Williams Lake and which, as of August 31st, was 234,626 hectares in size and only 35 percent contained.

The charred image of the wild horses represents the true nightmare of all livestock owners whose horses and cattle may be out on the range somewhere. For ranchers, cattle herds and pedigrees that were started a hundred years ago may be gone forever and it may take decades to rebuild the herds to the numbers they once were.

But the land, now devastated on a massive scale, will come back. Fire is part of the cycle of renewal.

“In 2003, in our area we saw a semi-alpine and heavily forested area become meadows and open grazing with low bush and shrubbery for cover,” says Hayward. “Wildlife changed - bear and moose moved into areas with more cover and the deer moved in in droves. So did the rodents, ground squirrels, gophers, marmots, mice. The birds changed as well. Where there had been a forest full of blue jays and owls, it went to grasslands filled with colourful songbirds. Some things didn’t change - the eagles stayed (both golden and bald) as did the ospreys. The badgers came back, and the cougars, and bobcats returned as well. The lynx headed for the forests with the moose and the raptors (hawks, etc.) populated the new grasslands.”

Atkinson wishes to recognize the Canadian Disaster Animal Response Team (CDART) and Pet Coalition who were very supportive. “In our area, BCPet Coalition has done extensive training over the years, have knowledgeable volunteers, and are still feeding and housing pets and horses at our fairgrounds, which is an emergency marshalling area.”

Across the province, about 6,000 equines have been rescued and many continue to be cared for in emergency evacuation centres. The number is fairly fluid but is as close as officials can estimate. Addressing this crisis, Horse Council BC stresses that rescued horses and livestock will require help for some time to come as many have lost pasture, range, and their feed supply. The organization will continue to receive donations to help associations, groups, and individuals with the many essential items needed at emergency evacuation centres, and funds collected will help provide hay, supplies, and gas for those assisting with the wildfire relief effort.

“The amount of support the Animal Disaster Relief Fund (ADRF) has received so far has shown us the incredible strength of community,” says Kelly Coughlin, Senior Program Manager and Manager of Agriculture and Industry with Horse Council BC. “Resources will continue to be needed for the care of displaced horses and animals in the weeks and months to come as many will have lost their farms, pastures and feed supplies.”

Many displaced property owners will no doubt worry about their insurance coverage. HCBC members receive coverage from Capri Insurance and the company has put a Special Bulletin on the HCBC website to clarify regarding the temporary care of displaced animals. Check the website and check your own insurance documents to assess your individual coverage.

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The evacuated horses in stalls at the Barriere Fairgrounds. By mid-July the fairgrounds was home to 378 animals, and 80 percent were horses. Photo: Jill Hayward

This year has been like no other. Some ride organizations are heeding caution as to the safety of competitions given the smoke hazard and have decided to cancel planned events. The smoke hazard has made it difficult or impossible for riders and their horses to train and condition for events.

A special air quality statement from Environment Canada was updated August 31st for the whole Chilcotin region, North and South Cariboo, Prince George, Okanagan, Nicola, East and West Kootenays and the Columbia Valley, warning of further smoky skies and smoke concentrations as winds, fire behavior, and temperatures continue to change.

This year’s fire season in British Columbia has been frightening. And it’s far from over.

On behalf of all British Columbians, we extend a huge THANK YOU to all firefighters and support personnel for their tireless efforts in battling the province’s wildfires.

Resources:

To help you prepare and find support, visit the Horse Council BC website Wildfire Resource List for a comprehensive list of resources and help lines.

Donate to Horse Council BC’s Animal Disaster Relief Fund, or mail a cheque to: Horse Council BC, 27336 Fraser Highway, Aldergrove, BC, V4W 3N5.

 For comprehensive emergency preparedness information, read Wildfire! Flood! Earthquake! Are You Prepared? 

This article was originally published in the September/October 2017 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.

Main article image: A contract crew member on site at the Elephant Hill wildfire, July 31st, one of more than 1,400 BC contract firefighters and support personnel tirelessly battling the province’s wildfire situation at that time. Photo: BC Wildfire Service

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