October 27, 2007

Evacuation centres across Southern California are emptying as firefighters bring under control the wildfires that have swept the state for more than five days, causing an estimated $US1 billion in damage.

The easing of the fierce Santa Ana winds gave firefighters the opportunity they needed to hit back.

Neighbourhoods across the state were being re-opened to citizens, but it remains unclear how horses that were unable to evacuated from affected areas have fared.

Many owners were forced to release their horses in the hope they could flee the flames, or were unable to return to fire zones with their trailers to get other horses.

Other owners will get better news. Volunteers with horse trailers had been able to move through some areas, removing horses from properties already abandoned.

The mission now will be to reunite horses and owners.

Under new disaster management plans, pets were to be evacuated with their owners. This meant every available fairground, racecourse and stadium was pressed into use, housing both animals and people.

San Diego County alone was home to estimated 15,000 evacuated animals. Del Mar Racecourse and surrounding facilities was home to up to 2500 horses at one stage.

An estimated 1800 homes have been destroyed, the highest concentration being in San Diego County.

At the height of the blazes, half a million people were ordered from their homes.

Animal rescue workers from several groups, both local and national, have worked long hours. The American SPCA has provided funding for emergency horse feed, while the Humane Society had specialist staff on the ground to help with animal rescues.

The American Veterinary Medical Association is helping to ensure the animal victims of the wildfires receive veterinary medical care.

It said the best way to protect an animal in a disaster is to be prepared to get them out of harm's way.

"The wildfires in southern California will affect and displace many residents of the tragically affected areas, including animals. Animals are too often the forgotten victims of a natural disaster, and the AVMA wants to remind pet owners to make appropriate disaster plans that include their pets and livestock," said Dr Heather Case, the body's national coordinator of disaster preparedness and response.

"The floods following Hurricane Katrina taught us that pets left behind during natural disasters often don't fare well. Unfortunately, many disaster shelters don't accept pets. So it's up to you to plan ahead and make sure your pets, horses and livestock can weather any emergency."

The American Veterinary Medical Foundation is providing relief to affected veterinarians through AVMF individual reimbursement and relief awards.

The programme was created in 2005 in response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster to ensure veterinary care to the animal victims of a disaster.

Veterinarians who incur costs by offering veterinary medical services to the animal victims of the fires can apply for up to $US2000.