Last year's devastating fire at San Luis Rey Training Center in Bonsall, Calif., was just one of 71,499 wildfires nationwide in 2017 that consumed more than 10 million acres. Some of the same regions battle wildfires every year; unfortunately, many of those are in states with dense horse populations.
The states with the most horses are Texas, Florida, California, Oklahoma, and Kentucky, respectively. All these states, with the exception of Kentucky, rank high on the list of fires and acres consumed in 2017, with California leading with 9,560 fires and 1,266,224 acres laid waste. Wildfires continue to burn in California.
Most experts advise horse owners how to plan an evacuation strategy, and the information is good: Be sure to have a halter and lead for every horse; don't use synthetic halters that can melt in the heat; write your phone number on your horses with livestock marker; train your horses to load readily; and have a pre approved relocation spot for your horses. You also can take measures to make your farm more resistant to wildfire, a protocol known as “firewise.”
The first step is to establish a defensible safety zone that extends in a 30-foot to 200-foot radius around core structures of the farm such as houses, barns, arenas, and outbuildings. Thin out trees so there is a 15-foot gap between treetops. Remove any vines or saplings that could act as a ladder for ground fire to climb up into the trees and use an appropriate herbicide to keep them from growing back. Prune trees so the lowest branches hang no closer than 10 feet above the ground.
Dr. Kate Wilkin, forest and fire adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension, said farm owners can take advantage of equine grazing habits — eating grass down to the nub — to protect the safety zone.
“Having heavy grazing around your structures and then feathering it out as you go farther away from the structures is one way to protect the property,” she said. “Of course, you want to be careful not to destroy that forage by overgrazing that will cause erosion.”
Eliminate all shrubbery or other plants and trees that are against or close to buildings because they may catch fire quickly and spread to the buildings. Don't use mulch, wood chips, or other flammable ground cover. Instead, use decorative stone or lava rocks.
Landscaping plants and trees within the safety zone should be less-flammable types. The Florida Forest Service provides a list of these plants and trees on its website.
Clear the safety zone of anything that would impede the work of firefighters if a fire should erupt.
A larger safety zone can serve as an oasis for horses during a wildfire.
“For a lot of fires, if you have an irrigated pasture and you can open the gate so the horses can leave if they need to, they will often be OK,” Wilkin said. “Ultimately, you want it to be a large area … it could be an area about half-mile in diameter, and it needs to be that large to keep the heat from affecting your lungs and your horse's lungs. … You can have trees if they are widely spaced and don't have ‘ladder fuel' around them. Then you can have shade on the property but still be more fire safe.”
Planning and retrofitting
When planning the layout for new construction, locate structures and paddocks on lowlands, if possible. Fires race uphill but creep downhill, unless they are fanned by winds. Additionally, water flows downhill, so lowlands are likely to have more streams, ponds, and succulent vegetation that resists burning.
Wilkin added that farm owners should not rely on a body of water as a firebreak.
“An ember can travel a mile or more during a wildfire,” she said. “While a creek or a larger body of water can slow a fire down, if there are winds and high temperatures, the fire is still going to cross it.”
Choose flame-resistant building materials, especially roofing, which usually is the first place airborne embers contact.
“The way you install [metal roofing] is also important,” Wilkin said. “Sometimes there are gaps around the seams and the edges, and you want to make sure they are filled by you with some sort of fire-resistant material rather than letting a small mammal or bird fill it with their nesting material.”
Don't erect wooden or vinyl fencing, use wire or the metal-pipe fencing that is popular in the Southwest. For existing fence, replace flammable sections connected to a structure with wire fencing or a metal gate to prevent fire from creeping along the fence to the building.
Washington State University Livestock Advisor Alayne Blickle, who conducts clinics on firewise planning, added this advice:
“Create a firebreak, a 15-foot to 30-foot buffer of cleared land placed between combustibles like crops, hay storage, bedding storage or feed storage and other structures (barn, house, fences, etc.). A firebreak can be a plowed or disked strip, a dirt road, a path mowed down low or possibly even a walking trail.”
For more information on firewise planning, visit Blickle's website.
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