Sep 18, 2020

An Eventer’s Path to Safety During the West Coast Wildfires

By Claire Kelley - USEA Staff
Photo Courtesy of DevonWood

Wildfires are currently ravaging the West Coast of the United States. According to the state of California, since the beginning of the year, there have been nearly 7,900 wildfires that have burned over 3.4 million acres in California. Since August 15, when California’s fire activity elevated, there have been 25 fatalities and nearly 5,400 structures destroyed. In Washington wildfires have burned over 626,000 acres, 181 homes had been lost, and one death occurred as a result. In Oregon, over 1 million acres were burned, and about 40,000 people were evacuated, with about 500,000 people in evacuation warning areas.

On Tuesday, September 8 at 8:00 p.m. John Meriwether received a call that his barn needed to evacuate due to the wildfires raging in Oregon. Meriwether had just finished dinner in his Portland, Oregon home when he got the call. He left immediately and headed to the boarding barn, Allynbrooke Stables in Sherwood, Oregon to help evacuate the 36 horses which included his own event horse, Macauleigh Brown. As plenty of helping hands pitched in, Meriwether’s barn was fully evacuated by 11:00 p.m. Their evacuation destination was 20 minutes down the road at DevonWood Equestrian Centre, a facility that has been referred to many Oregon residents as an evacuation safe haven.

“As I was driving 80 miles an hour on the backcountry roads, I thought ‘this is not good’, said Meriwether as he raced to evacuate the horses safely. “By the time I got to Allynbrooke Stables, they had already taken one load, someone had borrowed my trailer which was parked at the facility. During the second load our evacuation friends came in with multiple horse trailers, so that by the time we left there were empty trailers waiting so they just moved on to other farms that needed to evacuate. They were evacuating horses, pigs, goats, and sheep. These people work for days on end, driving to different sites to load up horses. They are good people, and they work on a volunteer basis.”

The barn manager of Allynbrooke Farm, Hadley Johnson, made the call to evacuate just in time as Meriwether described that the fire was very close to the barn. “The fire that we evacuated from was a small one, but it was about a mile and a half away from our facility when we left. Driving to the facility at night you could see this huge plume of orange lit from the ground. There were a number of other fires on the other side of the ridge. They were all lumped together as the Bald Peak Fire. Fortunately, the fire that we evacuated from stayed relatively small, and never joined up with the others.”

Photo Courtesy of DevonWood

Upon arriving at DevonWood Meriwether was greeted with a warm welcome. “It’s a wonderful facility,” said Meriwether. DevonWood Equestrian Centre is an internationally recognized, privately owned, boarding, training, and show facility run by Noah Rattner, his twin brother Evin Rattner, and their sister Jessica Rattner. Noah Rattner, general manager and co-owner of DevonWood, explained, “even though we are predominantly a dressage facility, we took in people of all disciplines and all aspects of equestrian sport. On Monday night, I put a post on our Facebook page that said ‘if anyone needs to evacuate, DevonWood is always willing to be a safe haven for anyone, with any kind of animal. We have just about 300 stalls on site. We had 240 horses on-site (not including our boarded horses) and 60-70 miscellaneous livestock as well. That was alpacas, goats, llamas, chickens, miniature ponies, and even an African tortoise. Of the 300 animals that were onsite for evacuation, we’ve seen 170 leave and we have about 140 that are still on site that are in the highest level of evacuation and cannot return home. But, we haven’t seen an uptick in evacuees at this point.”

Financially costing them $15,000 to $20,000 out of their own pocket, Rattner explained, “We haven’t asked any evacuees for any amount of money for boarding, we haven’t charged for shavings, water buckets, or anything else that we have delivered to them. These people came here on an emergency basis and didn’t expect that this was going to happen. Now, we are just hoping the community will rally.” Rattner continued, “we were fortunate enough to have three large animal veterinarians that were evacuated to our facility with their own animals. As soon they got their animals situation, they said ‘I’m here if you have anything that comes in that’s emergency related or needs vet care, I’m available at your disposal at no charge.’”

With vets available on site and with DevonWood’s generous hospitality, Meriwether said, “people kept their spirits up. We were meeting friends from all over Portland who had seen bigger fires.” Some barns in Oregon have resorted to their last option of safety. “At one barn, they couldn’t get the horses out, so they turned them loose. If it gets to stage 2 evacuation alert, your horses should already be gone. They were at stage 3,” described Meriwether of a barn that had no time to evacuate horses. When Meriwether heard this story, he purchased a couple of Silver Sharpies in case he had to write his phone number on his horse’s hooves. Luckily, for him, the day he purchased the Sharpies was the same day they got the approval to return home. The barn packed up the horses and on Friday, September 11 they returned safely back to Allynbrooke Stables.

Photo Courtesy of DevonWood

“We were at DevonWood for three days. When we made the call to leave DevonWood, part of that was to open up space for people coming in because we determined that our risk was much lower than theirs. Around the Portland area, a lot of the marginal land, where the farms are located, have hills and ridges around - and those areas are very difficult to evacuate because they are wooded with windy roads. So, some people are evacuating early, knowing that if a fire came, they would not be able to get out.”

Just over an hour from DevonWood is Oregon State University where veterinarian Tandi Ngwenyama is helping the thousands of animals who have been evacuated. "We’re focusing our care on the evacuation sites and some of the local evacuation sites includes the Benton County Fairgrounds, the Lynn County Fairgrounds, and the Oregon State Fair Exposition Center. We have a fully stocked vet truck with medication supplies and diagnostic equipment. We’ve been doing ambulatory animal welfare checks at the evacuation sites. A team of two vets and two students visit the evacuation sites 1-2 times per day," explained Dr. Ngwenyama.

Dr. Ngwenyama is seeing a variety of burn injuries and recommends for owners whose animals have been burned: "As an initial first aid for burns, use cold water (not ice). Run cold water on the burn for twenty minutes. Water on burns can help reduce swelling, reduce the depth of the burn, reduce the pain, and promotes better healing. The other thing we do when these patients come in is to focus on pain management. We put them on a multimodal treatment to help them feel more comfortable."

Photo Courtesy of DevonWood

Safe from any burn injuries, Meriwether's Macauleigh Brown and the rest of the 36 horses at Allynbrooke Stables returned home on Friday, however, the air quality index is still a concern. “Our air quality has not improved," said Meriwether. "Every day we’ve been expecting rain and it hasn’t been coming. So, we haven’t worked our horses in over a week. I just had to scratch at the next event (Spokane H.T.) because it’s in two weeks and that would not give me the time that my veterinarian is recommending that we wait to put our horses back into full work. Her recommendation is to wait two weeks after the air clears. The air would clear if it rains.”

Rattner added, “the air quality has been terrible, and the horses are confined to their stalls [at DevonWood]. We’re not allowing people to lunge or ride. The local veterinarians have been adamant that this is the correct protocol.”

Macauleigh Brown back at home at AllynBrooke Stables. Photo Courtesy of John Meriwether

It was Meriwether’s first time evacuating from a barn due to a wildfire, but what made him feel most safe is the proactive steps that were taken. “I feel that we’ve been tested and that our makeshift plans worked. The nature of the beast is that you don’t schedule a fire. You don’t schedule the wind or where lightning strikes. [But,] having a plan is essential.”

With every dark cloud comes a silver lining and Meriwether’s silver lining in this difficult situation was the sense of a community and the willingness to help. “2020 has not been like any other year, and I've lived in the northwest for a long time, for 50 years, and we have never had this before. [But] I feel a profound sense of gratefulness for the community. People I didn’t know showed up to help. There was no shortage of help and there’s no shortage of donations. Some of the fairgrounds are just stacked with donations, which is fabulous. Hay has been donated from hay farmers and dealers all over the place. There were offers everywhere - I don't think anybody went hungry.”

Photo Courtesy of DevonWood

The USEA would like to extend its best wishes to the eventers in Area VI and Area VII who have been affected by the wildfires. The USEA would also like to thank facilities like DevonWood and local fairgrounds, the vets, veterinary schools, and the countless volunteers who are helping the equestrian community stay safe. To show your support, consider donating to any of the following organizations:

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