Fires are an integral part of our ecosystem. However, the past several years have brought unprecedented wildfire activity to the Western U.S., among other regions.
What makes these wildfires unique in addition to their size is that they involve urban areas as opposed to solely woodland areas. This creates two issues with respect to our backyard chickens:
- How/if/when to evacuate our chickens during a fire event; and
- Understanding the potential food safety risks associated with eating eggs from chickens exposed to ash and other chemicals
Make a Plan
Many of us view our backyard chickens the same way we view our dogs, cats and horses. They are members of our family.
And you definitely need to account for your chickens during wildfires. Therefore, it’s critical to include our chickens in emergency planning.
Previous fire events have shown that residents who don’t plan for their pets and livestock, fail and/or delay evacuation. Likewise, animals left behind are often not properly set up for sheltering in place. This can lead to animal welfare issues and costly search-and-rescue efforts.
Inadequate preparedness can result in:
- human and animal death
- failures in reunification of animals with owners
- additional emotional distress, prolonging community recovery
Get Some Crates
That’s why advanced preparation is key. Just as we have cat carriers for our cats, we need to have some type of chicken crate to account for our backyard chickens. You can easily purchase crates to transport chickens online or at your local farm-supply store.
The crates come in a variety of sizes but are roughly 2 1⁄2 feet long, 2 feet wide and 1 foot tall. Crates fit roughly eight full-grown chickens for several hours.
One challenge? Chickens poop (a lot). And the crates are slotted. So your car could get very dirty and stinky very quickly.
Putting down a heavy-duty trash bag under the crate should at least help with keeping your car clean.
In a perfect world, you would be able to keep the crates in the bed of a pickup and bungee cord the crate in so it doesn’t excessively slide all over the truck bed.
In Case of Injury
Finally, if your chickens get burned or are otherwise injured, make sure you have contact information for your veterinarian. Or at least have contact information for a vet who treats backyard poultry.
Also have contact information for a diagnostic lab. The state diagnostic labs will often euthanize chickens for free, if needed.
With respect to food safety, one of the risks of urban fires is exposure to chemicals. These include heavy metals, fire retardants and polychlorinated biphenyls (aka PCBs), among others.
Specifically, chemicals previously contained in garages, electrical transformers, roofing shingles, etc. can be released. And they can associate with ash in soil and/or dissolve in surface water.
Due to their foraging behavior, backyard poultry often consume organic and inorganic materials within their allotted space. In fire–
affected environments, this confluence of behavior and environment can lead to the ingestion of the inorganic contaminants described previously.
These can bioaccumulate in tissues—including eggs, which we regularly consume.
However, it’s important to note that food-safety risk and proximity to fire haven’t been identified as risk factors with respect to exposure. That said, the research is promising in this area, and fires are highly unique events.
In other words, understand the risks described in this article. Stay aware of the potential risks if wildfires occur in close proximity to your home and chickens.
The following summarizes two different inorganic chemicals that we have found in backyard eggs. While we haven’t found an association with wildfires, it’s still important to be aware of their presence and potential effects to our chickens.
Based on previous studies in our lab, there doesn’t appear to be a relationship between lead in eggs and a fire event. In our study, we have found that the presence of lead in eggs from backyard eggs is associated with presence of lead-based paints in homes and proximity to oil refineries.
However, this isn’t settled science. And because lead is highly present in many urban environments, the mechanism for dissemination of lead in the environment following a fire event—specifically, consumption of ash with lead in it and subsequent presence of lead in eggs—remains plausible.
To that point, we have noted 8 percent of backyard poultry with lead levels in backyard eggs that were above the FDAs threshold for daily lead consumption for children. Consequently, regardless of fire, you should stay aware of this potential risk.
If you are concerned, you can send your eggs to a diagnostic lab for testing. Many diagnostic labs will also test soil and water for lead with the goal of identifying the overall risk in your chicken’s environment.
In our study, high lead levels in eggs were found at all premises with soil lead levels greater than 44 ppm. That’s slightly above the average background lead concentration in California soils.
With respect to water, knowing whether your plumbing pipes and fixtures are made before 1986 is important because they can contain elevated levels of lead.
Polychlorinated biphenyls were used in a large number of industrial and commercial applications including dielectric and coolant fluids, plasticizers and pigments and dyes. They were banned in 1979 in the U.S..
But PCBs don’t break down readily in the environment. And they are still detected in air, water, soil and food products.
Among other risks, PCBs can cause cancer. In the same study described previously, 43 percent of eggs from backyard poultry premises had levels of PCBs that exceeded the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment threshold for exposure.
While it’s unclear exactly how backyard chickens are exposed to PCBs, it’s possible that these chemicals may be present in soils. Chickens, then, would be exposed when they scratch and feed.
As testing soil for PCBs is difficult and costly, if you are concerned about PCBs in your backyard eggs, limit exposure of your chickens to soil. You can provide your chickens food in a feeder that keeps the food off the ground. Or you can confine them to a particular area of the yard, such as in a raised bed that has fresh soil.
Best practices for risk reduction of heavy metals such as lead, PCBs and other inorganic toxicants include using a chicken feeder that prevents spillage onto the ground. Soils have been previously identified as a source of lead in chicken eggs.
Remember, chickens forage directly off the ground. This makes them highly susceptible to ingesting contaminants present in the soil.
Wildfire events and natural disasters are relatively rare, but it’s important to stay prepared—for you and your chickens. Having a plan before the natural disaster remains an essential step toward making good decisions when the event occurs.
As noted, there appears to be no correlation between proximity to wildfires and levels of these contaminants in eggs from backyard chickens. However, you should consider this issue or question not-settled science.
Definitely keep abreast of these issues. Our backyard chickens occupy a unique role in our homes as companions and food animals, and we need to protect them from wildfires and their effects.
Considering all the potential issues associated with the well-being of our chickens and ourselves—before, during and after a disaster such as a wildfire—is an important consideration for us and them.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Chickens magazine.