An out-of-control wildfire storms across a Central Texas countryside scattering livestock and burning ranch homes, barns, stables and out buildings, leaving rural families in a state of confusion and emergency, concerned about their stock and worried about their future.

Similarly, a raging tropical storm or hurricane pounds the South Texas coast causing similar results; livestock herds are scattered or destroyed, homes are lost and lives have changed.

No one likes to think about a disaster, but we all know they can and do happen. Last year’s serious wildfires across Texas, for example, cost rural families millions of dollars in damages, and it wasn’t but a few years back when Hurricane Rita stormed ashore near Galveston leaving behind a trail of disaster and broken dreams for thousands of Texans.

While local, state and federal agencies are often quick to respond when disaster strikes, rural families, especially agricultural producers, find themselves in need of the types of help that are often slow in coming. For example, when raging wildfires require evacuation from a rural area, ranchers are often prohibited from re-entering an evacuated area to check on, gather or feed livestock that have strayed. Horse owners, livestock producers, even rural pet owners are “locked out” of their property until emergency fire crews can control the blaze and re-open the fire battleground to property owners.

The problem hasn’t escaped the attention and concern of the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC). Over the last several months, TAHC’s Emergency Management Coordinator, Amanda Bernhard, has been scheduling training, organizing a group of some 20 volunteers, and putting the final touches on what has become the Texas Animal Health Commission’s Mounted Disaster Response Team.

“Our new response team consists of TAHC inspectors who are trained to deal with animal health issues. Disasters in the past have revealed the need for responders on horseback to help with livestock handling issues. Public safety, as well as animal safety, can be compromised when displaced animals are found on public roadways,” Bernhard told Southwest Farm Press.

The TAHC staff will work to reunite stray livestock with their owners, assist local jurisdictions with shelter activities, support any unmet needs of affected livestock and poultry producers, as well as assist the local veterinary community that may be affected by a catastrophic event.

Latest TAHC tool

The team becomes the latest tool in the Texas Division of Emergency Management system. While the responders have just officially earned their wings and are available for service, many of the volunteers previously assisted during the wildfires that burned across Bastrop County last year.

“In some cases, our volunteers escorted ranchers back into the evacuation zone in order to gather and feed livestock. This is something they could not have done without an escort. Going forward, I see our responders providing mounted security, assisting in animal evacuations, certain types of veterinarian services, and other tasks as directed by the state emergency management coordinator on site,” she added.

Bernhard says TAHC’s response team has been undergoing rigorous training through the Incident Command System (ICS), a subcomponent of the National Incident Management System (NIMS), an agency responsible for organizing and deploying various assets in times of disaster.

“We have also been conducting field exercises to hone our mapping skills, keeping up to standard on GPS devices and other relative tasks that might be required during an emergency, and getting comfortable working in the field,” Bernhard said.

She says her team of responders and all staff members at TAHC are dedicated to agriculture in Texas.

“It’s our way of life. It’s in our hearts to be committed to agriculture—a good way for us to give back to those that work so hard to preserve the traditions of agriculture in Texas. It’s what we do best,” she says.

"The development of a mounted response team is a testimony to the dedication of TAHC personnel. These employees are volunteering to put themselves and their horses in harm's way to help with emergency response operations. In the future, with proper training, these responders could assist not only with animal disaster issues, but also participate in other response roles as requested, including providing horseback security services, or participating in search and rescue operations," says Dr. Dee Ellis, TAHC Executive Director and State Veterinarian.

To find out more about the Emergency Responder program, Bernhard invites agriculture users to visit the TAHC Web site at http://www.tahc.state.tx.us and to follow the agency on Twitter at http://www.Twitter.com/tahc. You can also reach TAHC toll free at 800-550-8242.