Lesson From The San Diego Firestorm, 2007

Terry Paik reflects back on the firestorm in San Diego in 2007.

Horses pulled
Horses seeking shelter at Del Mar Fairgrounds

Editor’s Note: Terry Paik, DVM, reflects on the fall firestorms that devastated much of San Diego County. Dr. Paik is the veterinary disaster response coordinator for the California Veterinary Medical Assn.’s disaster preparedness committee.

Once again, San Diego County veterinarians and the veterinary community showed their true color, spirit, generosity and grit in this past firestorm.

With howling Santa Ana winds, multiple fires started in the San Diego County on Sunday, Oct. 21.  Other fires also burned in counties north of San Diego.  By Monday, we were on our way to what would turn out to be the largest and worst firestorm in our state’s history, eclipsing even the fires of 2003.

By Monday we had at least four major fires in the east, south and north counties, all being driven by 60-plus-mph winds. Unlike 2003, voluntary and mandatory evacuations were massive.  The winds and smoke grounded the multiple fire suppression air attack planes and helicopters until Wednesday.

By 11:30 a.m. on Monday, the Del Mar Fairgrounds was already full of evacuated horses; there are 1,800 stalls at the fairgrounds and approximately 2,400 horses.  There was still some room for people and small animals, but not for horses.

Nearby Show Park and the Polo Grounds were also filling rapidly, despite a probable impending evacuation of Rancho Santa Fe. (Just think, 2,000 horses will require 20 tons of feed per day.  A call for hay went out by Monday evening.)

Lakeside Rodeo Grounds was also used as a large animal evacuation center. They were full by early afternoon with about 300 horses as well as the smattering of goats, sheep, etc.  The Ramona Fairgrounds could not be used as Ramona was already under evacuation orders.  Multiple boarding facilities became evacuation centers and numerous ad hoc evacuation centers popped up all over the county.

In El Cajon, a horse evacuation site was created in the parking lot of the Parkway Plaza shopping mall.  By 3:30 p.m. there were 100 horses, with more coming by the trailer loads.  Miraculously, in less than six hours, the site was transformed from a Monday morning parking lot to a full-fledged horse evacuation center, complete with hitching lines, hay and water trucks for the horses, lights, buckets, rakes, volunteers, and food, water and supplies.

At 5:30 p.m., I received a call from the California Department of Food and Agriculture. It seems it had received a call from the governor’s office saying there was a request for equine veterinary support at the Del Mar Fairgrounds; there were 2,400 horses, more than 400 dogs and cats, and 2,000 plus human evacuees. This was a preview of the type of calls I would be receiving the rest of the week.

When I called the Del Mar Fairgrounds’ office, in addition to some veterinarians, there were three vets on the premises the entire day so all veterinary needs were being taken care of.  One of the equine vets had evacuated her home and decided to stay at the grounds.  This process was repeated as calls came in claiming, “They need a vet at so and so,” only to find that a veterinarian was already there and that all the veterinary needs were being attended to.

Meanwhile, calls offering help continued to come in from veterinarians, technicians and others, both locally and as far away as neighboring states. California Veterinary Medical Assn., CDFA, UC Davis, drug companies and suppliers offered their resources. There was no end to the offers of support and generosity.

By Tuesday morning, more than 260,000 people had been evacuated. Some of the north county roads (including Interstate 5) were closed due to fires, making evacuations all the more difficult.  The Harris fire in the south county was the biggest concern, burning more than 70,000 acres.  The Witch fire, to the north, had consumed more than 165,000 acres and the Rice Canyon fire, near Fallbrook, had consumed more than 1,500 acres.  All schools were closed and eight hospitals (human) were closed.


…in less than six hours, the site was transformed from a Monday morning parking lot to a full-fledged horse evacuation center, complete with hitching lines, hay and water trucks for the horses, lights, buckets, rakes, volunteers, and food, water and supplies.

By late morning, Southern California was declared a federal state of emergency, opening the doors for federal aid and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  Additional shelters opened at Qualcomm Stadium and Fiesta Island for people and animals, including horses. Firefighting aircrafts were grounded due to winds and reduced visibility from the smoke.


And we weren’t the only show—10 fires were burning in the state.

San Diego County’s disaster plan names the San Diego County Department of Animal Services as the lead agency dealing with animal issues.  County DAS works closely with the San Diego Humane Society and its all-volunteer, highly trained Animal Rescue Reserve.

All counties in the nation should have a written disaster plan, including an animal annex.  Once a disaster exceeds the local agency’s ability to respond, they may request assistance from adjacent areas, the state, and if needed, the request may go up the chain, ultimately requesting assistance from the federal government.

However, even after a state and then federal state of emergency have been declared, the local agency maintains jurisdiction and the outside state/federal agencies may be called in to assist the local agency.

Pauline White, SDCVMA Administrator, and I worked closely with County DAS and SDHS, and handled endless calls from the public, offers of assistance, news agencies, drug companies, veterinarians, technicians, veterinary medical associations and so on.  I worked mostly with the large-animal issues and Pauline handled the small animals.  She and Debra Haines, administrative assistant, did an excellent job on the phone and Internet nearly 24 hours per day.  We also found that e-mail was a very effective, fast means of communicating with our members.

The list of responding veterinarians and technicians (both small animal and large) grew as quickly as the needs.  Many who came out to help will remain nameless, I’m sure, but please know your efforts and generosity did not go unnoticed.

Since the north county sites were full, horses were being evacuated north to Orange County, with the assistance of Dr. Julie Ryan-Johnson, Disaster Coordinator for Orange County.  However, her horse facilities were filling rapidly.  With her assistance, we lined up more than 1,500 available stalls in Thermal and Indio, well over 100 miles to the east, assuming the roads were open.  More often than not, the roads were closed.

By Wednesday morning, Day Four, more than 300,000 acres were burned or still burning. There were more than one million evacuees in the state — more than 500,000 in San Diego County.

That’s over 100 times the number of evacuations during the Cedar Fires in 2003 and more than all the evacuations during Hurricane Katrina.


Del Mar Fairgrounds was at full capacity due to Southern California wildfires.

It will be the largest evacuation in U.S. history.  Interstate 5 was closed at Camp Pendleton as another fire burned out of control on the base.  Major electrical transmission lines supplying our county were down or threatened, cutting our power supply by as much as 50 percent.


Approximately 42 shelters were in operation in the county; six were full; two major hospitals and five major convalescent centers were evacuated (first time ever in our history).

California Medical Assistance Teams were deployed to San Diego as well as two federal Disaster Medical Assistance Teams to assist with the medical care of the evacuees.

But still, all of the animal/veterinary needs were being taken care of by our local community.  They should all be proud of themselves; large and small animal veterinarians, technicians and support staff.

As the Santa Ana wind conditions broke down, the demands on our system also slowed down.  By Thursday, many evacuated areas were being opened for folks to go back to see what was left of their homes.  There is still so much to do — collect our data, re-supply our clinics, our practices, our trucks, our lives.  After action reports will be written, systems evaluated, suggestions made, hopefully changes made.

But for now, all I can say is THANK YOU.  To the veterinarians, technicians, animal rescue folks — any and all in the animal world, thank you.  Thank you to everyone who helped, from the seemingly smallest effort to those who worked around the clock, who gave from your pockets and who gave from your lives.

We all chipped in and made a difference and we got through it.  We always have and we always will.

Our condolences to our colleagues who lost their homes and more; you know you will have our support.

For the rest of us, go in peace and be proud.  You all made a difference, you all made it work.  Now, on to the recovery….

As of this writing, we know of four San Diego veterinarians who lost their homes.  We have not heard of any practices lost.  Approximately 1,600 homes were lost and seven people lost their lives.  No firefighters were lost.

Survey results are still coming in, but it appears that more than 5,000 horses were evacuated to various evacuation centers.  Local veterinarians treated hundreds of horses, mostly for colic and trauma associated with trailering and the stresses of evacuation and sheltering.  Countless horses were sedated to facilitate loading into trailers.  The number of burned animals seems relatively small, as well as the number euthanized as a direct result of the fires.  (Please note these are very preliminary numbers.)

Some of the issues that need to be addressed:

  • Communication is ALWAYS the biggest challenge in any event of this nature.
  • Organization and chain-of-command are issues that always arise, especially for those who are not aware of the system in place or even that a system exists.
  • The massive numbers of evacuations and the rapid deployment/development of animal (and human) shelters, many ad hoc, made coordination of services and supplies at the shelters difficult at best.
  • Reverse 911 system — this was the largest, most widespread use of this system since its conception and implementation.  However, it appears that some, probably many, waited too long for that Reverse 911 call.
  • In some areas phone service was interrupted and calls could not get through.  How many people rely solely on their cell phone?  (Currently, cell phones are not listed in the reverse directory. Also, cell service was inconsistent and/or overloaded in many areas.)
  • In many areas, power was lost; how many homes could not receive the call because their phones relied on outside power?  (Note: Every home should have a simple, “plug-in-the-wall” phone; these phones are powered by the telephone system and have proven most reliable in virtually any event.)
  • Veterinarians need to receive training and credentialing to enable limited access.

Our message has not changed: Have a disaster plan and practice your plan!

We need to create a culture of preparedness and independence from a culture of dependency.

Most of us want to help in the event of a disaster.  But first, before we can help anyone else, we have to ensure the safety of our families, our pets, our practices and ourselves.  Planning and practice are the keys.  Think ahead, plan ahead and practice your plan.  Don’t expect the government to take care of you. (Hurricane Katrina provided a great lesson to many of those who did, and hopefully to those who watched.)

For the veterinarians, we need to learn to work better with our local agencies and among ourselves — learn where and how to fit in, know and be known by the major players.  Who do we contact?  Do they know how to contact us?  Do we know how to contact each other?

We need to inform, educate and work with our clients.  Educate them to help prepare themselves and their neighbors in disaster preparedness.  Do they have an evacuation plan?  What is it?  Does everyone in the family know what to do, where to go, whom to call?

How will they move their animals?  Do they have halters, ropes, trailers?  Do they have some form of ID system?  Do they have safe places identified where they can evacuate?  Are they prepared to live without power for three days or more (preferably seven)?  Do they have enough food and water for themselves?  For their pets?   For their horses and livestock?

These are the areas we can really serve our clients and communities.  So, the first question is, are you prepared?

Terry Paik, DVM
Veterinary Disaster Response Coordinator, San Diego County
CVMA Disaster Preparedness Committee
Administrative Officer, NVRT-4

October 30, 2007


Once again, San Diego County veterinarians and the veterinary community showed their true color, spirit, generosity and grit in this past firestorm. Once again, San Diego County veterinarians and the veterinary community showed their true color, spirit, generosity and grit in this past firestorm. San Diego Firestorm, firestorm 2007, firestorm, Santa Ana winds, Terry Paik

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