Inside the Massive Effort to Care for Animal Evacuees of the California Fire
Hundreds of volunteers are cleaning up animal agriculture’s mess
On October 30th and 31st, the Easy and Maria fires tore across the hills of Ventura Country, California. Between the two fires, 11,272 acres of land were burned. These fires, which are exacerbated by climate change, have displaced hundreds, possibly thousands, of domesticated animals in addition to wildlife.
As wildfires in California have become increasingly common and destructive over the last several years, an informal coalition of animal rescues across Ventura and Sonoma counties have learned to adapt to the new climate. Together, they have organized tens of thousands of dollars of resources, hundreds of volunteers, and teams of specially trained emergency service providers and vehicles. The work they are doing has been vital to saving the lives of over 500 animals during these two fires alone.
Ventura County Animal Services (VCAS) took in dogs, cats, and small animals housed at their Camarillo airport shelter. Larger animals like horses, goats, sheep, and pigs were housed at the Ventura County Fairgrounds which opens its 150 stalls for evacuees during emergencies.
According to Randy Freedman, Marketing Manager at VCAS, both the Fairgrounds and the Camarillo shelters hit capacity by November 1st, taking in 339 animals total. Cats were stacked in crates three high in hallways and offices, and large animals were diverted to the Humane Society of Ventura County (HSVC).
The animals who arrive at the shelter are mostly evacuees from local homes, ranches, and homesteads. They are brought by their families who often stay and care for them on the property. According to Franki Williams, Media & Marketing Manager at HSVC, many of the animals’ human caregivers end up camping in the Humane Society’s parking lot to help provide care for their own animals, and also helping to care for the animals of others who are not able to stay.
It’s clear, though, that the stress of the ordeal takes a toll on the animals. “They seem to really understand that there is something dangerous going on,” said Williams.
For many animals, their evacuation is an incredibly stressful experience. According to Freedman, “Some of them have never been in box stalls before and this [is] the first time. And for some it’s the reverse, they’ve only ever been indoors and this is the first time they’ve had to travel. They’re a little frazzled, they’re not well… but, their owners are here and they come and take them out and care for them.”
Thanks to increased preparedness after the devastating Thomas Fire of 2017, which burned for six months starting in December of 2017, there are few reported fatalities among domesticated animals during the Easy and Maria fires. Some animals, though, still face a harrowing journey to safety.
“Our animal control officers have worked here for 15 years and seen dozens of fires. The difference is now they are becoming more frequent. Now we’re experiencing one every year instead of once every few years.”
One dog, named Magic Mike, took shelter in a shed with his siblings during the fires. The heat of the fires caused the tar roof of the shed to melt. When he was found, he was completely covered in tar, and his feet had been burned. His siblings were never found, but the Humane Society provided him with care. Mike now has a home with one of their volunteers who instantly fell in love with him.
For these organizations, dealing with fires has become a standard part of the operation. “Our animal control officers have worked here for 15 years and seen dozens of fires,” Freedman told me. “The difference is now they are becoming more frequent. Now we’re experiencing one every year instead of once every few years.”
According to Williams, the HSVC operating costs during the fires are about $10,000 per day, more than three times their normal daily budget. The costs come primarily from the basics: water, food, electricity, and their fleet of rescue vehicles. Luckily, the community has generously rallied around animal shelters, making thousands of small donations that help sustain them during hard times. Large donations, such as $100,000 from Sandra Bullock during the last round of fires, tend to also come in around these emergency events, Williams says.
Goatlandia was forced to evacuate their residents during both the Thomas fire as well as the recent Easy/Maria fires. In addition to managing their own evacuation to neighboring Animal Place Sanctuary in Petaluma, Goatlandia Founder and Executive Director Deborah Blum and her husband were also dispatched to assist in rescue and evacuation of neighboring farms.
In 2017 after the Thomas fire, Blum realized the need for a local emergency response team. She and her volunteers trained with NAPA CART (Community Animal Response Team) and helped form the Sonoma CART, now led by Amber Bowen.
“It was good this time in the sense that we had some warning and we had a team put together. But also, it was a tremendous amount of work for us to get our animals to safety and then turn around and do the same for others,” said Blum, “No one was ever expecting to be using all those skills this quickly again.”
According to Blum, the stress can have a huge impact on certain animals. Gandolph and Chloe, two goats who were taken in to be fostered during the latest fire, seemed particularly affected: “When we were trying to catch Gandolph he jumped about five feet in the air, I’ve never seen them jump that high. It’s really scary because you’re trying to help them but they are also incredibly scared.”
Gandolph later escaped his lead at the evacuation center where he was being kept. After trying to chase him again, volunteers eventually realized that if they let him just let him run around for a bit, he might calm down. Sure enough, after an hour of running around the border of the center, he eventually calmly returned to the pen where Chloe was waiting for him. “They’re going on instinct,” explained Blum, “They know when smoke and fire are around and they have a really strong instinct to flee.”
Sanctuary owners like Blum and Miyoko Schinner (yes, of Miyoko’s cheese), are starting to point out what others seem to be afraid to say: the impact of animal agriculture both on the fires and the burden of rescue.
“There are all of these excess farmed animals because of animal agriculture,” said Schinner, “animal agriculture doesn’t think of them beyond their own business needs, so these animals end up needing places to live or they’re going to be slaughtered.” Schinner continued, “I’m not sure they’re thinking about the potential repercussions of these natural disasters, what they’re going to do, and the burden they are placing when they have to escape from a disaster and rehome them… The fact is, homesteading, which I think is part of the problem, is contributing to this.”
“It’s weird because legally we’re supposed to try to find the owners, but a lot of times the owners don’t really care. They don’t look for three animals out of a hundred, so they may end up staying with us.”
The extra burden created by animal agriculture and modern homesteaders often falls to sanctuaries and rescue organizations. According to Blum, many “producers” of meat and dairy don’t value their animals’ lives and are often unwilling to evacuate them during emergencies. Sometimes, the small producers situated in the Sonoma County hills will simply open a gate during a fire and “wish the animals the best.”
While some animals certainly perish because of this practice, for others the fires may provide their only chance at freedom. Blum says that Goatlandia has taken in multiple animals destined for meat who escaped through burned fences or were let loose during the fires. “It’s weird because legally we’re supposed to try to find the owners, but a lot of times the owners don’t really care. They don’t look for three animals out of a hundred, so they may end up staying with us.”
Goatlandia currently is holding three goats who appear to have escaped slaughter thanks to the fires. “They have ear tags, but they don’t have names yet,” she says, “They’re still in that scared phase of “who are you?”
Forty miles south at Rancho Compassión, Miyoko Schinner says that their large animal population grew by 50% overnight thanks to fire evacuees. The sanctuary, which previously was home to 22 large animals, 40 chickens, seven ducks, and two geese, is currently housing 21 evacuees including goats and a pig named Tommy — evacuees from the Kincade Fire which sparked on October 24th in Sonoma County and burned across 66,231 acres of land.
Schinner says that the evacuees have been a major disruption to the residents at the sanctuary who have all had their schedules disrupted, “The cows are upset because they can’t sleep where they used to sleep.”
“We wouldn’t have all these grasslands if it weren’t for animal agriculture. A lot of these grasslands were forested or full of different grasses that weren’t prone to fires. It’s well documented. California native grasses were mostly replaced with European grasses for animal agriculture, which are much more likely to combust.”
Rancho Compassión was impacted by the widespread PG&E power shutdown, a move that affected 17 California counties and was widely criticized. The sanctuary relies on an electric well pump for water, and during the three days without power their supply of water ran out. “We were at a point where we were not going to be able to give adequate water to the animals,” said Schinner. Thankfully, a board member was able to donate a delivery of 1,000 gallons of water for the animals, plus water bottles, which held the residents over until power was restored, “If it had gone on any longer, we would have had a serious issue.”
Yet, Schinner says that blame for the fires should not rest only on PG&E. “We have to think about the impact of animal agriculture, which is the cause of the fires in many ways. It’s not just PG&E. We wouldn’t have all these grasslands if it weren’t for animal agriculture. A lot of these grasslands were forested or full of different grasses that weren’t prone to fires. It’s well documented. California native grasses were mostly replaced with European grasses for animal agriculture, which are much more likely to combust. If we didn’t have animal agriculture, we wouldn’t be in this predicament.”
According to a July 2019 study published in Earth’s Future, “human‐induced warming” is the lead cause of the five-fold increase in California wildfires since the 1970s. 14% of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions come from animal agriculture, making it the second-largest contributor to GHG emissions, and animal agriculture is a leading cause of deforestation, pollution, and biodiversity loss.
While animal agriculture is contributing to the problem of the fires, the burden of care for the animals who become displaced remains on sanctuaries and rescuers. According to Deborah Blum, “There are some people in production who do care about their animals, but really that’s the exception.”
Domesticated animals aren’t the only ones impacted by the increased fires. While species native to the area have evolved to deal with occasional low-intensity fires and are generally equipped to deal with those, the current trend of massive high-intensity fires is displacing unprecedented numbers of wildlife. Blum has observed an increased number of wildlife, specifically coyotes, coming down the hills above in search of food. “The wildlife are losing their homes, too,” she said.“It’s a good reminder that we need to learn to live peacefully with them and not exclude them completely. They’re passing through because they have to.”
It’s unclear how many wild animal victims there have been of the October fires. “That’s not really talked about as much as the human toll and the structures that are burned.”
Schinner also reported seeing an increased number of coyotes after the Kincade Fire, as did Franki Williams of HSVC. According to Williams, the coyotes were being found and brought to be transferred for care to a wildlife facility because they were in such poor health. They were mangy, and some appeared to have not eaten in days.
Williams also reports that birds of prey, such as owls and raptors, have been hit hard since their homes in the trees have been destroyed, and their food sources are all in hiding. A great horned owl named “Ram” went viral when he was rescued by the Ventura County Fire Department. He had been suffering from smoke inhalation and appeared disoriented.
It’s unclear how many wild animal victims there have been of the October fires. “That’s not really talked about as much as the human toll and the structures that are burned,” said Randy Freedman of VCAS.
If one thing is clear, it’s that there is no expectation that these fires will slow down any time soon. Every organization that works with animals in the area is being forced to confront a future where intense, fast-burning, widespread fires are a regular part of life.
“I think it all comes down to preparedness. People who care for animals need to be prepared. Putting a dog in your car is a lot easier than putting a horse in your station wagon. If you have five to ten goats you need a small trailer and a way to get them to safety.”
According to Freedman, this is a key consideration of the VCAS as they build their new facility.“We need more resources.” He explained, “We need to be able to house more animals… The next shelter we build, we’ll have to look at it not just in regards to daily use, but also these types of events. We’ll have to have extra kennels, evacuation rooms, and space for our evacuation supplies.”
Rescuers like Deborah Blum are encouraging those who care for animals to be prepared for the inevitable. “I think it all comes down to preparedness. People who care for animals need to be prepared,” she said, “Putting a dog in your car is a lot easier than putting a horse in your station wagon. If you have five to ten goats you need a small trailer and a way to get them to safety.”
Yet, the easiest way to care for these animals seems to be to prevent the need for an evacuation in the first place. While animal agriculture profits on the backs and bodies of animals, they sanctuaries are left to pick up their slack. For any animal lover, the California fires raise the question: If we really want to help animals, why not stop eating them?