By Maggie Mah
Special to The Almanac
Fire has always been a concern in California, but periods of heightened awareness were largely confined to the driest summer months. The massive all-consuming fires in the North Bay in 2017 and in Butte County late last year have jolted everyone out of any complacency, and Gov. Jerry Brown said recently that Californians should expect major wildfires to break out year-round, stating: "This is not the new normal. It's the new abnormal."
Travel back in time for a moment to where this writer grew up: in the East Bay community of Alamo. Nestled in the hills near the base of Mt. Diablo, it was a "cow town," with vast expanses of land devoted to grazing Hereford cattle.
One July day, fire swept up the valley through nearby ranches and headed straight for my parents' home. We were told to evacuate – orders that might have been fairly straightforward except for the two family members in the pasture down below. What would happen to our horses? There was no trailer so the firefighters said they would open the fences and the horses would have to fend for themselves.
This story has a happy ending, thanks to our very wise mare, Bonnie, who took charge of the other horses and led them along the edges of the fire to safety.
Fast forward to present day Woodside and Portola Valley: Both communities are home to substantial numbers of horses and other large animals, and along with the rural ambiance and lifestyle come complications like the one described above. In that regard, some things haven't changed.
The reality is that planning for fires is focused on humans. Woodside Fire Protection District Chief Dan Ghiorso explains it this way: "We have a simple mantra in response to these events – 'Protect life (human), property (animals, structures, vehicles, etc.), and the environment. In that order."
How effectively fire and other emergency personnel are able to handle situations involving large animals depends largely on the nature and scope of the emergency. Wildfires of the last two years have imposed a new reality. According to Chief Ghiorso, "The speed and intensity of these fires has been a game changer. For the most part, there is no time. Thus it is a case-by-case assessment of what can be done."
"It's unlikely we could evacuate many large animals in a firestorm-type event," Woodside district Fire Marshal Denise Enea said. "Large cleared paddocks and arenas are likely their best survival chance. Having an organized and trained livestock rescue group to retrieve, house and/or assist large animals in our area should likely be considered."
Ghiorso adds: "Learning from recent events, it won't be our folks that are available to help, but most likely from outside the area. ... [If this were an event today, we would be looking for the same type of volunteers that are helping up north."
"Organized and trained" being the operative words, if government agencies are too constrained to mobilize, filling the void with individuals could be disastrous. Unlike groups in Butte, Napa and several nearby counties, there is currently no organized body in San Mateo County equipped to deal with evacuation and rescue of large animals.
Asked what would happen in the event of an evacuation, and whether guidelines are in place for what to do and where to go with large animals, Ghiorso replied, "As of now there are 'ideas' but not much, if anything, committed."
The organization that has been instrumental in helping animals impacted by the fires in Butte County is the North Valley Animal Disaster Group, an organization devoted solely to helping animals in emergency situations. Ironically, the organization was formed in order to help humans who were reluctant leave their animals behind, putting themselves in danger as well.
Despite the lack of resources and critical timing under which first responders must operate, there is something you can do now to improve the odds for large animals on your property: make it easier for emergency personnel to find them.
A 5-by-5-inch reflective sign is available to post in a visible spot to let first responders and volunteers know where to go. Although the massive, all-consuming wildfires are at the top of everyone's disaster list, there are still other calamities to worry about, such as earthquakes, flooding and landslides. "The signs can help in all these scenarios," Ghiorso said.
Anyone residing on property within the Woodside Fire Protection District may obtain one of these signs at the Woodside town offices. There is no charge for the signs and instructions for where they should be placed are included.