It's a farm best practice to have an disaster plan in place should an emergency (be it fire, storm or something else) happen.
Preparing a disaster plan for your farm is critical for owners of small and large farms alike. Every year, disasters strike, leaving people and animals injured or dead and property damage that on a national level runs into the billions of dollars.
Although the word "disaster” usually implies big events, disasters can also be personal events, like a house or barn fire, or local events, like a chemical spill.
For those of us living in rural communities, it’s especially important that we be prepared because community services are often limited, and local responders—like police, fire and medical personnel—could be many miles away or quickly overwhelmed by the scope of a major disaster.
Farm Disaster: A Hard Lesson Learned
Laurie Glauth is a rancher outside of Woodland Park, Colo. In the summer of 2002, she learned many hard lessons about disaster when the 137,000-acre Hayman fire burned through her ranch.
Glauth grew up in Woodland Park, where her dad was a self-employed land surveyor and engineer. When her dad settled the family in Woodland Park in 1966, it was a sleepy, western ranching town with a little bit of summer tourist traffic. She first came to the 800-acre ranch with her dad, who purchased calves for her and her brother’s 4-H projects from the brother and sister ranch owners, George and Zelma Warden. Over the ensuing years, Glauth, who owns a health food-store and holistic-health center in Woodland Park, stayed in contact with the Wardens, helping them out as the need arose.
By the time Zelma Warden died in 2001, Woodland Park had become a bedroom community for the city of Colorado Springs, and land values were skyrocketing for prime development land like the Warden ranch, which was completely surrounded by the Pike National Forest.
"Zelma knew what she didn’t want to happen to the ranch when she died, and that was development,” Glauth says. "She didn’t want it subdivided. She had no children, and no local family members who would work to keep the ranch a ranch, so she set up a trust for her estate, and made me the trustee.”
For most of us the thought of having someone give us a ranch sounds like the dream-of-all-dreams coming true, but for Glauth, it was a big undertaking. During the winter of 2001, she moved everything out of the main house at the ranch to perform some needed renovation work; she stored everything—furniture, clothing, antiques and journals, in a cabin on the far corner of the ranch. Her plan was to spend the next year or so going through the collected goods of the Warden family, and disposing of things according to Zelma Warden’s instructions. When the Hayman fire started on June 8, 2002, Glauth was a couple of weeks behind on her work.
"I didn’t realize it, but the bulls got separated from some of the cows while they were out on the range during the breeding season, so we ended up with a bunch of late calves,” Glauth says. "Typically, the cattle should have been out [on a forest service allotment] on June 1, but we were running a week or two behind, so when the fire broke out, we were just branding at the ranch.”
"The day that the fire broke out, we could see those huge white clouds rising straight up in the blue sky,” Glauth says. "We didn’t know what was going on until later that evening when we saw it on the news.”
Over the coming days, Glauth and her brother monitored the fire, though for the first week or so, it was far north and west of the ranch. Around June 15, the wind shifted and the fire made a quick dash to the south. Glauth was told she had four hours to evacuate the ranch. But two hours after the evacuation notice, the wind changed again, and she was given a reprieve. Glauth decided to begin moving the livestock anyway.
She enlisted the help of friends and neighbors to evacuate the cattle. The first stop was Glauth’s mom’s place, about 7 miles south of the ranch. But that area was soon posted for possible evacuation, so the cattle had to be moved again. Troops of neighbors and area ranchers responded to help, and a rancher about 30 miles away took the herd for more than a month.
Two days later, the fire moved south again, this time burning over the ranch. By some miracle, the main ranch buildings survived, but the cabin that had the accumulated effects of the Warden’s burned and all around the building, the forest was nothing but black sticks.
Prepare Your Farm for the Worst
One of the best ways to be prepared is to develop a disaster plan before disaster strikes.
"You don’t want to be thinking about what you’re going to do in an emergency situation for the first time, as that crisis is occurring,” says Lara Shane, spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the lead federal agency for emergency response.
FEMA urges people to do three things:
- Have a plan.
- Have a disaster supply kit.
- During a disaster, listen to your local emergency managers. These officials will help guide you safely through a crisis.
If you have pets or livestock, make sure your plan addresses their needs.
"Animals are generally not allowed in emergency shelters, so if you have to evacuate, you need to know where you can take your animals,” Shane says.
"When you have animals, you have a responsibility to look out for them,” Glauth adds. "If you live in a wildfire area, you shouldn’t plan a trip in June or July. Now, I will have a plan for how I can handle the cattle, wherever they happen to be at any given time. My neighbors know my dogs and cat are in the house if I’m gone, and they know where a key is to get them out.”
Rely on Yourself, Not Government
Ultimately, government emergency personnel will try to help, but it’s up to you to protect yourself in the case of an emergency. Plan ahead to assess and address the risks, and take actions to reduce risks. For example, if you live in a wildfire zone, provide defensible space by thinning brush and trees around your home and barn. If you live in a flooding area, obtain flood insurance. If you live in a tornado belt, construct a tornado shelter.
Your county emergency response personnel or local fire department can help you define your vulnerabilities, but it is really up to you to take the steps to protect yourself, your family, your property and your future.
One year after the Hayman fire, Glauth is thankful for the insights she’s gained.
"There’s an inherent risk wherever you live,” she says. "But you live there because you enjoy it. There are no guarantees in life. Every day that we get into a car and drive, we take risks. There is nothing that is super safe in this world or this life, but we can’t live our lives in fear either. I think the best we can do is be prudent and observant of our environment. The best we can do is to be stewards and do what is ecologically correct for our environment.”
This article first appeared in the June/July 2003 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.