Correction: An earlier version of this column said Stuart and Susan McElhinney filed paperwork for HEET. It was actually Carolyn Sokol who filed the paperwork.
Each fire season, Cal Fire designates San Luis Obispo County as at risk from wildland fires spreading into urban areas. In the 2002-03 Highway 58 and Parkhill fires, the agency reported 2,200 acres, five residences and $110,000 lost.
That’s when a few concerned horses owners realized their animals were at risk during wildfires.
Stuart McElhinney said, “There wasn’t a coordinated emergency evacuation system to care for the horses and organize their rescue. We needed a volunteer effort to develop a plan (and to) implement a system.”
By January 2003, Carolyn Sokol filed nonprofit paperwork for the Horse Emergency Evacuation Team (HEET). The mission is to work cooperatively with Cal Fire, the county Fire Chiefs Association, the Sheriff’s Office and CHP to coordinate a first response evacuation plan for large animals.
They quickly realized they needed to provide the public agencies more than a willingness to serve.
“We needed to train and develop strong relationships with first responders, first aid representatives and large-animal veterinarians,” Stuart McElhinney said.
HEET now has 25 members throughout the county ready to train more volunteers. Susan McElhinney is HEET’s secretary, and Stuart McElhinney is communications director. The president is Julie Monser.
HEET offers training each month in subjects including fire safety/incident command systems, Red Cross disaster services, first aid/CPR, horse handling, trailer handling, large animal rescue and horse triage.
Over the years, HEET has improved its database by listing more horse owners, developed a site visit protocol to determine the best evacuation plan and identified large animal shelters such as the Paso Robles Event Center.
Stuart McElhinney said they “now have a 24/7 emergency communication center. Our all-volunteer group keeps costs minimal. Insurance is a major expense. For HEET members to support county first responders, our group must carry at least a million-dollar policy.”
Susan McElhinney agreed some fundraising was needed to purchase more evacuation and emergency equipment such as the rescue slide HEET has donated for emergency use.
“We always need more volunteers. Two volunteers must always respond,” she said. “Many thanks for Dr. Andy Dibbern at the Equine Center for making himself available.”
In the coming months, www.sloheet.org will feature the group’s upcoming training schedule.
The McElhinneys are proud that after years of slowly developing HEET and training members, the group is now considered the lead agency for large animal rescues in the county.
Reach Judy Salamacha at firstname.lastname@example.org or 805-801-1422.