John Doherty owns and operates a mixed farm in West Central Alberta with his family. Cows, chickens, hens, turkeys and pigs call his property home. Having grown up on a farm himself, Mr. Doherty has always had agriculture and animals in his life.
So when his farm recently fell under a wildfire evacuation order, requiring residents to pack a bag and leave owing to fire danger, Mr. Doherty decided to stay behind in Yellowhead County to protect his animals.
“The thought of just trying to relocate all our animals was pretty overwhelming,” he said. Thankfully, the wildfire did not end up reaching his farm, and the evacuation order was rescinded after a few days.
Provincial wildfire services say residents must leave immediately when an evacuation order is issued for their own safety and for the safety of emergency personnel who may need to help them. However, farmers and ranchers face a glaring problem: Hundreds of animals don’t fit into a grab-and-go bag.
Farmers and ranchers therefore end up with choices: leave the animals and hope the evacuation won’t be long; stay and protect their livestock, and hope they can manage the dangers; or try to move their animals out to one of the many farms that have volunteered to help with temporary boarding.
In Mr. Doherty’s case, he said relocating the animals would have come at a substantial cost. Unlike the neighbouring province of British Columbia, the Alberta government does not provide compensation for livestock relocation during wildfire evacuation orders.
Despite this, the agriculture community in both provinces has come together in support, offering evacuees and their animals feed, livestock hosting and shelter. Farmers and ranchers have posted hundreds of resource offers for evacuees on social media, agricultural societies have opened their doors and neighbours have extended a helping hand.
Before officials issued an evacuation order to his property, Mr. Doherty hosted evacuees and animals on his farm. Just beside him, his three neighbours spent several days using their stock trailers to haul animals away from the risk of fire.
Brodie Haugan, fifth-generation rancher and chair of the non-profit advocacy organization, Alberta Beef Producers, said offering assistance to other farms and ranches is an unspoken rule within the industry.
“If someone needs a lending hand or some help, there are countless people waiting to be there for them,” Mr. Haugan said.
To help evacuees find these resources, ABP created a map at the beginning of the wildfire season so the agriculture community can more easily organize themselves.
The blue points on the map show livestock shelter offers from almost 40 Albertan agriculture societies and rodeo associations. Offerings include contact information, an address and a description. Orange points indicate agriculture societies that are in need of donations, such as hay bales for evacuated animals. The map is maintained by ABP, which receives offers and requests by e-mail.
The number of current farm and ranch evacuees in Alberta is uncertain. But as of Thursday in B.C., there are approximately 130 agriculture operations with livestock under evacuation order and close to 90 operations under evacuation alert, according to B.C.’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food.
Mr. Haugan said he has heard of livestock deaths this season, but the exact number is unknown.
“We realized it was going to be an emergency type of situation,” he said, explaining why ABP created the map this year. “It’s amazing how many people step up without even being asked.”
Once on alert or order, farmers and ranchers need to think fast. They need to consider how many trailers the livestock need, in addition to finding a large enough area for livestock to be moved.
And with calving season in full swing, some operations may not be able to make space, Mr. Haugan said. Evacuation orders can arrive suddenly, he added, so logistical issues are bound to occur. Animal evacuations can take a day to complete.
“You don’t just load up a couple of hundred animals within a matter of a couple minutes. It takes quite a bit of time and a lot of man-hours and power to make some of these plans work.”
Human safety comes first, he said, “but as ranchers, producers, we always make sure we’ve done everything we physically can to protect and look after animals.”
Despite drought and wildfire appearing most years in Alberta, Mr. Haugen said this year’s fires are different because of how widespread and early they are: “It’s causing a lot of concerns.”
To him, the threat of wildfire is personal. In the past, wildfires burned down part of his ranch.
The hardest thing about the experience, he said, was the aftermath on landscape and infrastructure. He expressed concern about the long-term effects the wildfires may have on farmer and rancher livelihoods, since springtime marks the growth of feed crops and cattle turning to grass.
However, he said it’s too early to tell what the impacts will be this year.
The B.C. government has developed emergency management resources for the agriculture industry, including information on how to create a livestock relocation plan. The government also has a Premises ID program, which notifies producers of livestock emergencies.
The plan encourages farmers to be as ready as possible for emergencies, including reaching out to neighbours before an emergency occurs to discuss shelter opportunities.
Shayna Bueckert, a central B.C. farmer, is one of many who are offering space for evacuees and their animals.
Although no one has taken up her offer yet, she said the matter of helping wasn’t even a question.
If her farm was ever placed under an evacuation order, she knows people all over B.C. and Alberta would come to her assistance.
“We have the ability to help,” she said. “We do what we can.”