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Evacuation priorities: Save people first, then livestock

Issue Date: August 15, 2018
By Kathy Coatney

Evacuation Order Checklist from University of California

California's rampaging wildfires are creating huge challenges for the state's ranchers. Even with advance notice, moving livestock during a sudden evacuation may be impractical.

"It's generally too difficult to get trucks out on such a short notice," said Glenn Nader, University of California Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor emeritus for Butte, Sutter and Yuba counties.

Nader is a fourth-generation rancher who has always lived in areas prone to wildfire, and he has been through three wildfires in Lassen County.

"The first fire, you are unprepared like most people, because you've been busy with other things and didn't think about fire," Nader said.

It wasn't until the third fire that Nader was prepared, but at the same time, he recognized there was only so much he could do. The reality is that on a farm, ember material is everywhere—hay, hay barns and grass around buildings, he said.

Carissa Koopmann Rivers, UCCE livestock and natural resources advisor for Siskiyou County, said the Klamathon fire, first reported in early July, devastated the town of Hornbrook, which is situated in a cattle-producing area.

The attitude is when there's a fire, everyone starts planning for evacuation of their animals right away rather than wait for evacuation orders to come down, Koopmann Rivers said.

"When fire comes, everyone knows where their livestock are," Koopmann Rivers said, and stock trailers are hooked up and ready to go.

Nader said with a fast-moving fire there may be little or no advanced warning. In that scenario, moving cattle to a green space is one option.

If green space isn't available, the next best option is to throw open every gate or cut fences so that the animals can move freely ahead of the fire front and hopefully avoid it, Nader said.

Nader used alfalfa fields as green space for his cattle in case the fire came his way, he said.

Even with advance notice, moving livestock during evacuation may be impractical.

"It's generally too difficult to get trucks out on such a short notice," Nader said, adding the logistics of getting them into and out of a zone that is under evacuation is difficult.

Another concern is water for the animals. Larry Forero, UCCE livestock and natural resource advisor for Shasta and Trinity counties, has a ranch that was in the path of the Carr Fire. He turned his cattle out on irrigated pasture confident that as long as they had access to water, they would survive.

"The only thing that I thought about when I left was if the power gets cut, there's no stock water," Forero said, so he left a trickle of irrigation water on so that the cattle would have drinking water for several days.

Some producers in the Carr Fire spray-painted their phone number on their animals, Forero said, but of course depending on the scale of the operation, that may or may not be feasible.

Getting dogs, horses and some livestock out may be more feasible than truckloads of cattle, Nader said.

Nader also advises having a list of phone numbers of people to call in the event of a fire instead of frantically searching your phone.

Another consideration—animals behave differently in the smoke, and they don't perform like they normally would. People perform differently, too, when they are given 20 minutes to evacuate, Nader said.

After three fires, Nader said he knows what gates he'll throw open, where he'll move the cattle, or where he'll cut a corner of the fence.

"It's hard if you haven't had a fire," Nader said, but it's important to start thinking about what you would do to ensure the animals have free movement if you can't transport them.

Ricky Satomi, UCCE forestry advisor for Shasta, Trinity and Siskiyou counties, said if there's a wildfire and a person has advanced notice, there are several things that can be done to save buildings before evacuating.

Here are some steps to take:

  • Leave ladders for first responders to access the roof quickly and potentially save your structure.
  • Place fire-fighting tools—rakes, shovels, chainsaw—in front of structures.
  • If combustible materials are present, place lawn sprinklers on the roof and near above ground fuel tanks. Wet down these areas but turn them off when you leave.
  • Protect water sources—wet down the pump house, clear flammable vegetation away from the supply infrastructure.
  • Fill garbage cans and buckets with water.
  • Connect garden hoses to outside taps and sprinklers.
  • Set up any portable gasoline-powered pumps, if available.

Embers are the big concern, because they can be as much as a mile in front of the fire, Nader said.

"The biggest thing on roofs is gutters full of hay or needles, or whatever ignites, then they get the structure on fire. So, getting those gutters wet would be of great help," Nader said.

Vegetation around structures is also of concern because it will preheat the wood or material that starts it on fire, Nader said.

"Wetting around the sides of the building by running off the roof would help," Nader said, but this only gives you a fighting chance, it's not a guarantee.

"There is no 100 percent solution," Nader stressed.

"Green grass is the safest thing because it won't ignite," Nader said. "It takes a lot of heat to boil off that moisture, but if you get a fire tornado, it's going to burn even green foliage."

In that situation, there's nothing you can do, Nader said.

The single most important thing to remember is—evacuate. The one thing you can't replace is your life, he said.

(Kathy Coatney is a reporter in Bend, Ore. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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