When a wildfire breaks out in San Luis Obispo County, a dedicated group of volunteers swings into action to rescue horses and other livestock imperiled by the flames.
The Horse Emergency Evacuation Team was formed in 2003 and has since grown to more than 30 volunteers, all of them horse enthusiasts, said Susan McElhinney, president of HEET.
“We began as an organization because there was nothing in place for rescuing large animals,” she said.
Most recently, the group responded to the Park Hill Fire that burned nearly 1,800 acres east of Santa Margarita. HEET rescued six horses and a herd of goats.
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Except when it is raining, members of the team monitor emergency radio scanners. As soon as a fire breaks out, word is sent out for the rescuers to stand by.
“Whoever is available with a trailer will hitch up and wait,” McElhinney said.
Working in coordination with Cal Fire and the county Sheriff’s Office, the volunteers will then head to the scene of the fire and load up all livestock in the path of the flames and take them to shelter centers located at various ranches and rodeo grounds around the county. If needed, they will also rescue pets.
“People are very generous about opening their doors for housing animals,” McElhinney said.
Rob Lewin, Cal Fire chief for San Luis Obispo County, said HEET is an important and valuable resource.
“Overall, people will not evacuate without their pets,” he said. “They have a bond with their pets — particularly dogs, cats and horses — and we need to accommodate that feeling.”
Many rural residents register their horses with HEET so the group can use a database and mapping program to pinpoint the location of many of the horses in need of rescue. Once at the rescue centers, other volunteers tend to the animals around the clock until it is safe to take them back home.
While the animals are in HEET’s custody, the group takes precautions to make sure the animals are returned to their rightful owners. This includes photographing and documenting each animal and the volunteer who rescued it, McElhinney said.
The group will also rescue abused and neglected livestock. They have even been called out to livestock trailer accidents and to round up loose livestock that pose a public safety threat.
Although wildfires happen only occasionally, training for HEET volunteers is constant. They have monthly training sessions that cover everything from how to back up and park a livestock trailer to how to safely handle horses that are panicking in the face of a wildfire.
“There is always danger when rescuing livestock,” McElhinney said. “A horse can kick you, and that can kill you or break your femur.”
Many of the volunteers are also licensed ham radio operators. This is an important safety feature because it allows the volunteers to stay in communication, even in areas of the county where cell service is nonexistent, she said.