The Black Forest, Colo., fire that burned nearly 15,000 acres and destroyed more than 500 homes broke out on June 18, and in just the following two days, local veterinarian Clinton Unruh worked nearly 40 hours, with only about four hours of sleep in the middle, treating and identifying some of the approximately 600 horses rescued from the area by local emergency crews.
Unruh, whose Colorado Equine Veterinary Services is located in nearby Peyton, Colo., took time out of his schedule last week to discuss the experience, and also provided a few tips for horse owners in Colorado in dealing with wildfires and evacuations.
Below are portions of that conversation:
Q. How did you get involved with this effort?
A. Our clinic was contacted because we were close by, but not actually in the fire area, and we offered to help.
Basically, the officers would rescue the horses left in the fire area, they’d bring them to our clinic and we’d catalog them, do as much identification as possible and make sure medically they were doing well.
We’d then have other people haul the horses to areas more equipped to handle the large numbers of horses and provide the animals longer-term housing ... places like the Elbert County Fairgrounds, Kiowa County Fairgrounds, the El Paso County Fairgrounds.
Q. It sounds like a lot of work. Was it a pretty exhausting few days for you?
A. It was a lot of man hours.
The fire started on a Tuesday, and we did a few things that night, around 10 or 11 p.m.
But then the phone started ringing about 6 the next morning, to get more organized.
From there, we were at work until about 2 a.m. Thursday morning, and back at it again at 6 a.m. until Friday at midnight.
Q. Were there any common horse injuries you saw during this effort?
A. The most common thing was actually head injuries.
Horses that didn’t want to get on the trailer would rear up and their hit heads on the top or sides as officers were trying to get them out of the area.
We probably saw 10 to 12 head injuries, which percentage-wise is low, considering altogether there were about 600 horses that were rescued from the area.
We saw another three of four horses with burns.
One of the worst burned is still in the hospital still, but the rest were fairly minor.
We also saw a few cattle come through.
It seemed as though they had more external injuries than the horses, or more problems with smoke inhalation.
We also saw alpacas, llamas, chickens ... I think even a cat.
You name it, we saw it, for the most part.
Luckily most animals weren’t too injured.
Q. For such a chaotic situation, did things go pretty smoothly?
A. It was all put together on a whim as news arrived, so there were some hiccups.
I hadn’t had to do anything like this before, so it was new to me. But I’d say, overall, about 95 percent of the people in the operation — with the officers, county fairground personnel and others — did a pretty amazing job, considering there wasn’t any one person supervising the operation.
We were cataloging as much as we could, then some other groups were doing the same thing and horses got identified twice or lost a couple times.
Looking back, it might have been better if just one group was doing the cataloging — maybe a little more efficient.
At the same time, though, it’s probably better to do double cataloging and identifying than nobody at all.
Q. There’s still a lot of wildfire season left this year, and it’s been pretty dry in the West. Do you have any advice for horse owners who might deal with wildfires in the upcoming months?
A. It would be great if you could get your horse to load in a trailer comfortably, because in that situation, there’s no time to sweet talk them on.
Also, it’s beneficial to have identification on the animals.
We saw some horses with halters that had a name and phone number on them.
Some horses had phone numbers spray-painted on their sides.
Anything helps us.
Some horse owners would be able to identify their horses because they had a certain scar somewhere.
I think I last heard there were only two horse owners who couldn’t find their horses, and that was a couple weeks ago.
Overall, it worked out, but if everyone could have a good way of identifying their animals, that helps us a bunch.
I also suggest that when pre-evacuation orders are given, to go ahead and find a place for your animals and get them out of the area. That way, if an actual evacuation order is called, the animals are already out of there, and then you can just focus on getting yourself out, and getting any valuable items. ❖