British Columbia

B.C. livestock owners scramble to move cattle, horses caught in wildfire risk

With 300 wildfires burning across British Columbia, livestock owners are turning to the goodwill of others to help keep their animals safe.

‘I will often get phone calls and the owners … are just so scared they’re crying,’ says volunteer

A horse owned by HIllary Schnieder at her Epona Rise retreat centre near Kamloops B.C. under smoky skies from a nearby wildfire burning on July 4, 2021. (Hillary Schnieder/Facebook)

With 300 wildfires burning across British Columbia, livestock owners are scrambling to keep their animals safe.

Some have had to round up cattle where they are grazing in remote areas near wildfires and move them to safe places.

For Hillary Schnieder, it meant moving and finding a temporary home for her 28 horses after her ranch near Kamloops was threatened earlier this month by the Embelton Mountain wildfire burning nearby.

"This is my first time having to evacuate," she said about the nerve-wracking experience of seeing a fire come close and the skies turn smoky over her and her animals' heads.

Needing help, Schnieder went online and asked strangers to assist her.

"It's honestly like I would be lost without a community to figure out how to manage something like this on your own. It's just incomprehensible," she said. 

This summer, Kristina Leduc has volunteered her time to help people like Schnieder. Leduc was one of the people who helped Schnieder transport her horses to fairgrounds in Barrière, about 65 kilometres north of Kamloops.

"I will often get phone calls and the owners, they're just so scared they're crying," said Leduc.

Earlier this month she and a friend helped round up a herd of cattle in the Deadman River Valley, which was being threatened by the Sparks Lake wildfire. It's now grown to more than 45,000 hectares.

'Very emotional, very hard'

Leduc helped round up the cattle while on horseback and had to be careful as heat in the valley was hard on the cattle, which usually stay in hilly terrain until fall.

"It's very emotional and it's very hard," she said.

One rancher near Savona, west of Kamloops, has been chronicling the challenges of moving herds on YouTube due to the threat of wildfire.

According to the B.C. Cattlemen's Association, there are more than 4,000 cattle ranches operating in B.C.

Kevin Boone, who speaks for the association, said even if flames are not near herds, smoky skies can cause problems.

"The smoke will often kill the cattle before the fire will," he said.

Livestock owners also need to be careful moving herds in the heat of summer as they can get dehydrated and exhausted quickly.

"If you are rushing to get these animals onto a transport, that could actually cause more trauma than the smoke in the air," said Dr. Adrian Walton with the Dewdney Animal Hospital in Maple Ridge.

Walton says it's important to keep animals well hydrated and provide access to shade from the heat.

Marking animals

If owners have no choice but to leave animals behind due to an evacuation order, they should take close up pictures of the animals so they can be identified and also mark them in some way.

"If they have an unusual bit of colouring on one ear, that's an identifying mark to help you reunite with the animal," Walton said.

Schnieder says she's thankful for efforts like those of Leduc to help owners like her keep animals safe.

"Behind the scenes it's an incredible thing to see people coming together," she said. "It's still a bit emotional for me sometimes. I'm entirely grateful and indebted."

Schnieder says she does not know when she will be able to return home with her horses. Leduc says the pace of wildfire season in B.C. so far means that more help will be needed.

"It's really nice to know that what we are doing is making a big difference for people," she said.

"We …  would definitely like to keep this happening. There's too much of a need for it."

The province has a program to help commercial livestock owners move their animals and be reimbursed for the costs involved.

With files from Baneet Braich