By Mary Wilson – The year 2013 was an informative and challenging year for Half Creek Farm in Bickleton, Washington. In late July and early August, we got our first “opportunity” to give farm fire evacuation procedures a try. We pretty much sucked at it.
I raise Kiko goats, British White cattle, Gotland sheep, a llama and a Holstein heifer. We also run a small herd of British Guernsey milk goats. We are raising geese, a zillion free-range chickens, ducks and three dogs.
Our animals are generally very gentle and used to us handling and touching them. We don’t have any craziness here (in the livestock sense). This fact led me to anticipate that should I ever need to put our fire evacuation procedures to the test, it would be a fairly simple thing to load all my gentle, well-behaved animals into the horse trailers and canopy and, away we’d go. Hah! That is not what happened.
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First, and foremost, you need to realize that all those friendly, sweet, easy to handle animals become raving lunatics when they sense something is wrong. My sweet Daisy (one of the British White cows) jumped her enormous girth (which I had no idea was even possible) onto a four-foot cattle panel and squashed it in half to escape the loading pen I’d thrown together. In spite of my warnings of oncoming barbecue weather, it took hours to lure Iris (the other British White heifer) into the horse trailer. That’s when I discovered that two of these girls weren’t going to fit in the horse trailer. So I took Iris and the llama to our friends’ farm in Goldendale (30 miles), dropped them off, and headed back. Daisy was having none of it, and ended up never being loaded out.
All of the meat goats were loaded up into the big horse trailer and hauled to Centerville, Washington (40 miles). When I arrived to unload the goats I discovered that one of my really nice registered Kiko doelings was crushed in the load. Not only is this heartbreaking, it’s a financial hit, as fire evacuation procedures are not cheap!
I unloaded the goats into the pasture provided by a friend’s farm and fed them to help settle them down. I was sharing a fence line with her goats, which made me nervous, and I didn’t have time to reinforce the fence between the two herds. This proved problematic, as the hay is always greener on the other side, and her herd broke through the fence and mixed with mine. That meant that a few months after I got my herd home I had to have the whole group blood tested for CL and CAE. Another expense I hadn’t counted on from our fire evacuation procedures.
I didn’t even try to move the poultry as part of the fire evacuation procedure, choosing instead to shelter in place. We have a large area behind one of the barns that’s void of grass and debris, and we put food and water out hoping for the best. The dogs stayed with us the whole time, traveling in the trucks while we moved livestock. The cats disappeared into the woods, not bothering to look to us for saving them.
Then we loaded the dairy goats and took them to a third farm. The dairy goats were near kidding and we were worried about them. We’d spent a lot of time and money having them AI’d and didn’t want to lose anyone. The people who owned the farm worked, which meant the girls would be alone for the day. They also didn’t know much about goats, so couldn’t tell when kidding was imminent, leaving us to check on them often. This farm was 25 miles from us on a side road.
Just when you think you’re finally set, you realize you’ve only begun with the hassle of the fire evacuation procedure. Once you have your animals moved, you are then responsible for making sure they get fed and watered. This was a really expensive challenge for us, as all of our shelter farms were about 30 miles away. We got up each morning and loaded up hay and buckets, and headed out to each farm to care for our animals. We couldn’t leave extra hay just sitting at our host farms because they had animals as well and their animals didn’t know our hay from their hay. So each day we’d drive out, feed and water all our animals, make sure they were doing okay, then in the evening we’d repeat it. One of the farms put the llama and the British White out on pasture so we didn’t have to do anything with them. This was so nice!
As we had feared, one of the British Guernsey dairy goats did indeed kid. We found her and her kid on one of our evening rounds and took her home, figuring if it got bad, we’d put her in the back seat of the car and run for it.
Dave made runs around our house and property with the Bobcat to help provide protection. There were tons of flying ash pieces in the air, and for weeks after the fire they remained on every surface on the farm. It’s amazing they didn’t start more fires as some of them were really large.
We brought the animals home in waves, about five days later, and then sat down to make a new fire evacuation plan for next time. We live in the rural west and wildfires are a fact of life. We have to be prepared to evacuate. However, remember there are many other reasons to evacuate, or to be prepared for disasters. From floods, to earthquakes, to volcanoes, we pretty much have it all and should be ready to provide for our animals as well as our families. With this in mind, I’m sharing with you some of the things that might help you in times of uncertainty.
Level 1=Get Ready, Level 2=Set, Level 3=Go!
We began waking up to heavy smoke in the air and flying pieces of ash. The fire departments sent trucks down to warn everyone to get ready for fire evacuation procedures (Level 2). They started advising steps to take to help minimize damage if the fire overran their fire line. It was a tense time. The smoke in the air was a constant reminder that all was not well.
Another thing to remember is that local wildlife is also on the run. Once your animals are out, open your gates, fill the water troughs, and close up your barns. You don’t want others running from the fire to be cut off from escape, or trapped in your barn thinking it’s safe, or full of your hay.
Pay close attention to local authorities and when you are moved from Level 2 to Level 3, assume you won’t be permitted to re-enter your place once you’ve left. All your animals need to be rescued before this point.
Finally, try to make sure valuable farm equipment is under shelter, and you’ve cleared around the shelter as much as you’re able. By now we’ve all had it drilled into us to clear a defensible area around our houses, but you should also have that same area around your barns and storage shelters. No debris, scrap lumber, or usual farm “stuff” should be banked up near any structures. If it’s valuable enough to keep, put it under cover; otherwise toss it, or put it in a pile in the middle of a clear field and away from structures.
So, I’ve told you how we did it, now I’ll tell you things that we would do differently, and things we’ve learned for the first time we executed our fire evacuation procedures.
1. Your tame well-behaved animals will become strangers. They won’t follow you like they always do, they won’t pay attention to the dogs, they’ll run everywhere but where you want them. Have a good livestock handling area set up in advance. It will make your life easier anyway so just do it. Sturdy aisles, good-working gates, and a well-built loading area will make things so much better.
2. If you have a lot of animals be sure you have room for all of them at host farms. In the case of a fire, you can’t just board at your neighbor’s because he’s boarding somewhere too. You need to be far enough away from the disaster to provide safety. Setting up reciprocal agreements with other farmers in advance is something you can do this week!
3. If you have a lot of animals and it looks serious, start moving them when you reach Level 2 of your fire evacuation procedures. You may not be allowed back if you wait until a Level 3 and have to make several loads.
4. On your final trip, leave a horse trailer at the host farm. When you return to check on your animals the next morning, bring plenty of hay and store it in the trailer. This way you can take a more economical vehicle for the rest of the fire evacuation procedures as you won’t have to haul hay every day.
5. Make sure all of your animals have positive identification on them, whether it’s a brand, an ear tag or tattoo. Have current pictures of unmarked animals and keep accurate records of where everyone went. It’s easy to lose animals while they are hosting at someone else’s farm, especially if everyone is working and there’s no one to watch your animals.
6. If you have to leave an animal behind, don’t chain them, or contain them where they will be trapped. Place them in a cleared area with enough food and water for 72 hours. Don’t rely on automatic waterers as you may lose electricity.
7. Make sure the host farms have all your contact info. Place contact info on your door when you leave.
8. When you have completed your fire evacuation procedure, put a sign at the end of your drive, advising fire and rescue that you have evacuated. You don’t want them to waste precious time going in to check to make sure you are safe when you aren’t even there.
9. Be sure to take important papers like registrations, health records, and vaccinations.
10. If you are unable to evacuate all of your animals, you need to decide which genetics are the most valuable. Prioritize if you can’t take them all.
The 5 P’s of Executing Immediate Fire Evacuation Procedures:
- People, pets, and livestock
- Papers — important documents
- Prescriptions — medications, eyeglasses, hearing aids
- Pictures — Irreplaceable memories
- Personal computer
Before a Fire Evacuation Procedure:
- Make a list of priorities. What will you pack when you leave? Write it down so that if it ever comes up, you can pull your list and begin loading the car.
- Keep a kit: This should include a first aid kit, some emergency tools, a battery powered radio and flashlight with extra batteries, a spare set of car keys, credit cards, cash, water, non-perishable food, blanket/sleeping bag, a waterproof tarp, all packed in a backpack or carryall so you can grab it and go. Keep several packed and in handy places, like one in each car, and one in the utility room.
- Always establish two escape routes in case of disaster.
- When you leave your home:
- Leave your electricity on and a light on!
- Move flammable furniture to the center of the room.
- Close shutters, blinds, and heavy drapes. Remove light-weight drapes and curtains.
- Close fireplace screens and dampers.
- Shut all interior and exterior doors and leave them unlocked.
- Place a note on the front door stating names of all evacuees and your destination/contact info.
- Place a ladder outside for roof access.
Originally published in Countryside 2014 and regularly vetted for accuracy.