When raising goats, prepare for many seasons: breeding season, kidding season, show season, winter — and for many in the western states, FIRE season. Though you may not live in a wildfire-prone area, your goat care protocol should include a fire safety plan for your herd.
How do goat owners prepare for fire?
They make plans: evacuation, mitigation, and relocation.
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Evacuation: If You Can or Must Leave
Mary Henderson is all too familiar with wildfire and executing safety plans, living in California. In 2015, they had responded six times on advisory evacuations, but in August of 2016, the Clayton fire caught the community by surprise. Though there were fires in the area, a mandatory evacuation had not been issued. By the time it was needed, it was too late.
“We went ten minutes from smelling smoke to leaving. We saw the neighbor’s trees on fire. It happened so fast. Our wooden fence ignited and propane tanks started to explode. We were surrounded on three sides and thought we were ready. Normally, it only takes 10-15 minutes to load the goats up. We had our suitcases ready by the door. The truck was parked by the pen gate with the camper shell on it and the trailer hooked up.”
We can plan based on what we know, but Mary suggests more. Goat care under typical conditions is far different from goat care in an emergency situation. “The goats were panicking. Planes were flying overhead. The fire roared. There were explosions. We were yelling trying to be heard over the noise. Goats that wouldn’t normally run, ran from us. We could only load six out of sixteen. I couldn’t believe it. We had to leave without all of our goats and I was devastated. I didn’t want to leave my goats, but I had to protect my family.”
Adrenaline, confusion, and panic affect both animals and humans. Animals are very sensitive to fire and typically react with nervousness, panic, and even aggression. They often resist handling and attempt to flee any type of confinement — including a trailer. Once fight or flight response is triggered, it can remain long after the triggers disappear.
To preserve lives, it may not be possible to evacuate all animals. A herdsman must make a heartbreaking choice. Before leaving, Mary’s husband Bobby opened all the gates. Mary feared they would never find the goats again if they ran. It seemed counterintuitive, but opening gates allowed their animals to escape burning areas. Bobby did the right thing. If animals must be left behind, do not leave them confined. Secure barns and buildings so animals cannot hide within. They stand little chance of survival if confined.
How Will You Transport Livestock?
As they were leaving, Mary saw police going from door to door, evacuating neighbors. Though they usually had more than one road out, some roads were closed, and they were stuck behind other people trying to flee. Flames burned ten feet from their vehicle on both sides. Narrow back roads allowed no way to go around other vehicles. Their stock trailer further limited where they could go and how easily they could maneuver.
Do not count on borrowing a trailer. Almost everyone that owns a trailer also owns stock and will be using their trailer to evacuate their stock.
Where Can You Go?
When considering fire evacuation procedures, have several alternate destinations, in different directions, with varying distance from your location. Remember that some roads may be closed or restricted to emergency service vehicles. In Mary’s case, every arranged location was also threatened by fire. It burned three miles out from the only place she had left, but thankfully it didn’t travel further.
Is There Adequate Food, Water, Fencing, and Shelter?
Despite all their emergency preparedness plan, they wished they had kept the trailer loaded with hay. Because of fire destruction and all the displaced animals, the county had a hay shortage. Water is also not assured in wildfire situations so if you have a means of storing water, take some along. The area to where they evacuated had no power for three days. Wells do not pump without electricity. They couldn’t leave to source water because the police had closed the road. It is important to keep a means of accessing well water — with a hand pump or generator — and enough fuel for the generator. Mary also suggested having a basic goat care vet kit in the trailer, as veterinary supplies can also be difficult to source.
Relocating goats is not as easy as relocating horses and cattle. Goats have unique fencing requirements. Unless someone has goats, they are likely not set up to keep goats, which can be limiting in finding pasture. For as much as we don’t like net fencing, we keep it and a solar charger that could be employed to create a temporary pasture.
Unbeknownst to Mary, shortly after they left, firefighters arrived. They saw the goats and rescued each one. Some were hiding in their houses. Firefighters put them in a nearby shed temporarily, until they could be relocated. Mary and Bobby’s home, outbuildings, vehicles, and equipment were incinerated.
Can You Identify Your Animals?
Mary was distraught. She didn’t know what happened to her animals, and she wasn’t allowed back into the evacuation area to check on them. No one had answers … until a friend called from Michigan. He had seen what he thought were Mary’s goats on the news. The story was viral, with pictures of her goats everywhere, allowing a quick reunion. Because Mary had a website, www.noudderplaceonearth.com, with pictures of her goats, she could confirm her ownership. All her other pictures and goat care records were lost in the fire. None of her goats had tags or tattoos. It is recommended that you keep pictures and identifying information for each animal in your evacuation kit if you have no means of accessing them electronically. Plastic ear tags are not reliable as they can melt.
When asked how she would advise others in evacuation situations, she said emphatically that livestock owners should not wait for a mandatory evacuation.
Mitigation: When There is Nowhere to Go, or Fires do not Immediately Threaten Your Location.
Our situation at Kopf Canyon Ranch differed from Mary’s. During the 2017 wildfires, mitigation was our only option. The entire Northwest was on fire. We had active fires within fifteen miles from us, and all of the surrounding states. We were forced to shelter in place. Thankfully, we have a drylot area that we jokingly refer to as “the moon.” Nothing grows there, no fuel for fire, so it is an ideal space for refuge.
To mitigate the threat, create a firebreak — around your entire property — that fire would not likely breach. Online resources and consultants can help you create defensible space. Contact your local fire department or Firewise.org.
Defensible space is critical for all livestock owners. In Mary’s case, the ten goats that could not be evacuated were in defensible space. “What saved them was the area they were in was bare. The wooden fence was the biggest problem. If it had been welded wire or panel, that side would not have caught fire. We would have had more time.”
In larger herds, with too many animals to relocate or not enough capacity to transport, mitigation is often the only option. The Humane Society of the United States advises that large animals can shelter in place during a wildfire if a pasture area meets the following criteria:
- Over 1 acre in size.
- No overhead power lines or poles.
- No barbed wire fencing (woven wire is best).
- For high-wind scenarios, the pasture area must also be free of debris and easily uprooted trees.
If you evacuate with livestock left to shelter in place, provide enough food and water to survive for a few days. Recognize that you will not be able to return until evacuation orders are lifted and roads are opened. Do not rely on automatic watering systems, as there may be a loss of power.
Fire did not threaten our defensible space, but weeks of hazardous air conditions did.
How do you manage a herd exposed to prolonged hazardous air quality?
For us, there is no way to bring a herd of 50 or more inside. Goat care under these conditions is challenging. First and foremost, reduce movement. Make feed and water accessible and close to shelter, so the goats move as little as possible. Do not disrupt or excite them. Keep water readily available and changed frequently — at least daily, if possible — to reduce toxic ash accumulation. If water is not available, partially cover stock tanks to minimize contamination. Clean water is critical to survival — it keeps airways moist and helps clear inhaled particulates. You may add electrolytes to water to mitigate stress, especially if it encourages consumption. Because the lungs are compromised, and animals will have difficulty clearing particulates, limit exposure to dust, pollen, mold, fungi, and bacteria by feeding low- or dust-free feeds and sprinkling or misting the livestock holding area.
How Does Smoke Affect Livestock?
Flames do not need to be visible to injure livestock. Animals removed from wildfire-affected areas may appear medically stable for days then crash with severe health complications. The Merck Veterinary Manual states, “Lack of apparent injury immediately after smoke inhalation should not reduce the level of clinical suspicion.”
Smoke effects are similar for humans and livestock: irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract, and reduced lung function. High particulate concentrations can cause persistent cough, nasal discharge, wheezing, and increased physical effort in breathing. Particulates can also alter the immune system and reduce lungs’ ability to remove foreign materials such as pollen and bacteria. Watch for signs of respiratory infection: persistent cough, wheezing, nasal discharge, fever, increased rate or labored breathing, changed voice or persistent vocalization. Should any of these symptoms present or persist, consult a veterinarian; a course of antibiotics may be indicated. Also consider carbon monoxide poisoning, common in severe cases of smoke inhalation, which causes weakness, odd gait, vomiting and unconsciousness, and requires administration of oxygen to reverse.
Give livestock four to six weeks to recover after air quality returns to a safe level. Handling, moving, or transporting may aggravate their condition, delay the healing process, compromise performance for many weeks or months, or even cause irreversible damage.
Relocation: When You Cannot Return to Your Previous Location
We always expect to return and rebuild. Mary and Bobby certainly did after the Clayton fire in August 2016. They were fully insured.
Insurance payments can take years to resolve. Though their loss was clearly attributed to wildfire, it is still being investigated. Rebuilding would have taken years: the permitting process took from six to twelve months and the limited number of contractors had committed to other projects. Building costs in the area doubled per square foot, with building materials scarce. Despite the best intentions of friends and neighbors, most cannot host livestock for extended periods of time. Mary had to relocate her herd three times. They have since purchased a new home elsewhere, but are still in the process of rebuilding barns, milk sheds, and goat shelters using their earnings and savings while waiting for the insurance payment. They have been unable to breed or milk since the fire and hope that this will be the year to begin again.
If you are forced to relocate, do you have a strategy for goat care? Temporary facilities to house your herd for the time it takes to rebuild? Can you financially sustain displacement?
Clearly, there is much to consider and plans to be made to ensure the safety of our herds should we be faced with fire.
Karen and her husband Dale own Kopf Canyon Ranch in Moscow, Idaho. They enjoy “goating” together and helping others goat. They raise Kikos primarily, but are experimenting with crosses for their new favorite goating experience: pack goats! You can learn more about them at Kopf Canyon Ranch on Facebook or www.kikogoats.org.
Originally published in the May/June 2018 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.