After 2017 fires, Sonoma County residents, groups rally to protect large animals in disaster

It is impossible to gauge the number of animals that perished in the wildfires. But the firestorm revealed the value of developing evacuation plans for farm animals before the next disaster strikes.|

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Though nearly two years have passed, the pain in Marjorie McCoy’s voice is still evident when she recounts the chaos that unfolded on the night of the 2017 firestorm as volunteers scrambled to evacuate 50 horses from a ranch northeast of Rohnert Park.

“It was a big wake-up call,” said McCoy, president of Sonoma Equine Rescue Rehab and Adoption.

After fleeing the flames approaching her home in Sonoma, McCoy went to the Crane Canyon Road ranch, where staff and volunteers were frantically calling for help. The horses were loaded into seven trailers and transported to safety at Sonoma State University, where they were tied to trees before being taken to several other facilities.

The wildfires and their aftermath motivated McCoy, other local animal lovers and public safety officials to develop rescue plans and implement new training programs to better protect horses and other farm animals during disasters.

Since that night, McCoy has taken 10 courses on preparedness, including how to safely deal with large animals in disasters. She has been trained to respond to emergencies and is helping to educate other community members. She’s made phone trees of resources to call on during an emergency and created plans to evacuate animals or shelter them in place, steps she described as the silver lining to a large-scale tragedy.

“For me, it’s not only the passion of wanting to be available and trained during a disaster - it’s also giving me a new sense of hope in the community when I see how many people are stepping up and coming to trainings,” said McCoy, 50, who now lives in Petaluma.

It is impossible to gauge the number of animals that perished in the 2017 wildfires, a Sonoma County grand jury report concluded. But the fires revealed the value of developing evacuation plans for farm animals - and training people to implement them - before the next disaster strikes.

There are more than 75,500 cattle in Sonoma County, a $20 million part of the county’s agricultural economy, according to the 2017 Crop Report. A 2014 study prepared by Sonoma State University tallied nearly 27,000 horses in the county, part of a $613 million equine industry.

Sonoma Valley Fire and Rescue Authority Capt. Gary Johnson has long worked to train himself and others in large animal rescue during emergency situations, such as overturned trailers or downed animals.

Johnson spearheaded the Sonoma Valley Animal Emergency Response Team, a service created in June 2018 by Sonoma Valley Fire and the Kenwood Fire Protection District. This January, he also founded ResQFAST, a company offering training for disasters and emergencies as well as rescues involving large animals.

“Self-preparedness is huge,” said Johnson, 39, a Santa Rosa resident. “People that are going to have animals have a duty to protect them, and they need to be aware of how to do that.”

Johnson has already trained more than 200 people, including members of the new Sonoma Community Animal Response Team, or CART. The nonprofit group, formed last year to aid the county and other animal response agencies during an emergency, also facilitates training in animal disaster preparedness, response and recovery.

Brian Whipple, Sonoma County Animal Services operations manager, is working with the nonprofit to further develop training standards and implement background checks for those interested in becoming certified to evacuate and care for animals in a disaster.

“The more hands on deck you have during a response is key, and having an organized group that understands how the response framework is going to happen can only be helpful,” Whipple said.

Amber Bowen, a Santa Rosa-based equine veterinarian who serves as president of CART, said at least 300 people have applied to be part of the program. Bowen, who spent two weeks at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds caring for evacuated animals during the 2017 fires, said the group will help provide much-needed structure for disaster response.

“I couldn’t believe we didn’t have an organized plan (in 2017),” the Santa Rosa resident, 33, said of her experience working with hundreds of animals at the evacuation hub. “I was waiting for a rescue team to come and asking, ‘Where’s the incident command system for the large animals?’ and it never came. … In our community, the way it’s going to be sustainable is for us to do it here.”

Sonoma County Animal Services, which came under fire for aspects of its operation in a 2017 post-fire grand jury report, also has been taking steps to protect large animals, Whipple said.

The agency has secured a seat in the county’s Emergency Operations Center, which will allow information to more easily be relayed during disasters, Whipple said. Staff have obtained more training and equipment, such as trailers and supplies for animals, he said.

The agency is developing a program that would allow animal owners to apply for permits enabling them to enter evacuation zones during a disaster to check on or rescue their animals, he said. Animal Services also is working with the Sonoma County Horse Council and the UC Cooperative Extension Sonoma County to create a database with information about locations of large animals in the county, he said. Local groups are working to lobby for the implementation of a statewide training protocol for animal services agencies that would offer mutual aid during disasters.

Stephanie Larson, the county director and livestock range management adviser for the UC Cooperative Extension, said her organization is also educating residents about the importance of creating defensible space around livestock pastures. She is working to match ranchers with shepherds who have herds of goats or sheep available for targeted grazing, and to facilitate controlled burns that will help ranchers reduce the amount of flammable vegetation around their properties.

Julie Atwood, a Glen Ellen resident who in 2013 created the HALTER Project - short for Horse and Livestock Team Emergency Rescue Project - has been offering community events to share preparedness techniques for years. She hopes the momentum for change continues.

“The community has definitely rallied - truly the biggest change is the way people look at preparedness,” said Atwood, 64, who lost her home in the 2017 wildfires.

“It’s no longer a matter of the fire department or the county telling us to cut weeds or trim trees; it’s asking, ‘Am I safe? Is my home safe and are my animals safe?’ It’s really working to create defensible space for your large animals and pets,” she said. “It’s awareness. That capital ‘A’ word. That’s the biggest change, right there.”

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