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News: 08/01/2017

Summer fires illustrate importance of preparation, training

A HALTER update

rescuers stand with goats and horses

NVADG team members Lori Finch and Tom Atwood (left) prepare to evacuate two horses and three goats from the Wall Fire, outside Oroville. Photo by Julie Atwood

If you attended Kenwood’s 4th of July Hometown Parade, you might remember a big white horse decked out in 4th fanfare traveling down Warm Springs Road. “Sonoma Smarty,” a plastic mascot led by Glen Ellen resident and HALTER (Horse and Livestock Team Emergency Response) executive director Julie Atwood, joined the “Dogs of Kenwood” to promote the Valley of the Moon Horse and Animal Rescue Team called “Sonoma County HART-1.”

Just three days later, wildfires erupted throughout California, and the North Valley Animal Disaster Group (NVADG), of which Julie and her husband Tom are also members, was activated to provide assistance to Butte County communities affected by the Wall Fire. The Atwoods hit the road to Oroville and were assigned to Large Animal Evacuation and also worked in the Small Animal Shelter.

Working with Butte County Animal Control, NVADG volunteers from several counties, including Sonoma, arrived throughout Friday night and Saturday to set up command and staging areas, hotline, communications, and shelters for small animals, horses and livestock. Six NVADG three-person Evacuation Teams were equipped and briefed before deploying to get animals out and advise residents on sheltering animals in place where evacuation was not an option. The Evac teams are volunteers who have trained rigorously to safely operate within the evacuation areas and communicate with Incident Command.

What began as a grass fire quickly spread to nearby subdivisions and small ranches with lots of horses and farm animals, suburban neighborhoods populated by families with pets, and into woodlands. Like in Sonoma and Marin, many people in Butte County live on narrow, winding country roads with poorly marked or non-existent street signs, out-of-sequence addresses, and difficult access. Plus, fire and heavy equipment damage rendered some signs useless.

Julie felt that the Butte County Sheriff’s Department and other local agencies were remarkably effective in notifying residents and reporting animal locations to Animal Control and NVADG. “Time after time we staged our rigs on the road, then walked up long smoky dirt lanes to check on animals spotted by firefighters or deputies. We responded to frantic calls from residents and absent owners on vacation. We saw wonderful examples of neighbors helping one another, and responders, to help animals. The shelters filled up fast as people heeded the warnings and got their families and animals out of harm’s way,” she reported.

Homeowner preparation made a big difference: large clearings, no brush, debris, or tall grass, animals were moved into defensible dry lots, or large pastures where they had a good chance to escape grass fire, lots of big, full water troughs, even mud wallows. Julie said they were even met with signs requesting “Please rescue horses” or “Get chicken out please!” at property entrances. One poignant moment she remembered was hearing distant, low whinnies from a totally burned-over, still-smoking road, then being greeted by a lone, exhausted mare who had been watered, and reported, by a firefighter.

Horses, goats and chickens were evacuated by NVADG and owners to the emergency Large Animal Shelter at Camelot, a beautiful equestrian park, where safe and shady pens awaited. Evac teams then turned livestock over to the care of trained volunteers. Animals needing medical assessment or care were attended to by local on-call vets.

The efforts don’t stop after evacuation; actually, work increases. Evac teams visit animals sheltered in place, feeding, watering, and checking for injuries or signs of stress. Shelter volunteers clean, feed, water and sooth, while others walk dogs on a scheduled basis. It takes a small army of really committed volunteers to train, maintain skills, and provide this level of care while adhering to strict safety, security, and emergency management protocols.

It’s not easy to develop and sustain a Community Animal Disaster Team. Along with volunteers willing to devote tremendous time, energy and resources, collaboration between emergency management agencies, NGOs, veterinarians, and land and animal owners makes it work. Mutual Aid agreements are crucial to supplement local resources. NVADG, which responds when called to jurisdictions throughout Northern California, is primarily dependent upon donations. Some grateful animal owners literally emptied their pockets to make a contribution. The HALTER Project does not accept donations, but instead, provides funding for education and training, and supports fire service and SAR training in animal rescue.

If you’d like to become an Animal Disaster Service Worker locally, you can join and train with NVADG, Napa CART, or Marin Humane. There’s a need for every skill, and training requirements vary. You can also do CERT training in Napa, Marin, and a few places in Sonoma County.

For more information about HALTER and its programs, go to

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