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