By Monica Luhar, December 19, 2013 – Southern California Public Radio
The Riverside Emergency Animal Rescue System will conduct training next month for volunteers who want to work rescuing animals in the event of a major emergency or wildfire, and it’s eager to sign up more.
Those interested in becoming emergency volunteers can sign up for an orientation on Jan. 11, which will be led by Rita Gutierrez, field services commander for the Riverside County Department of Animal Services.
In recent years, the demand has grown for volunteers, especially in regions such as Riverside County that are plagued by multiple wildfires. To address this need, REARS established a group of volunteers who rescue, evacuate, care for and protect animals during natural disasters and large-scale emergencies.
“There’s a tremendous amount of fires that happen every year. We don’t even have an off-season anymore; we’re constantly on for fire season and so we call upon our REARS folks all the time to respond with us out in the field,” said Gutierrez.
Volunteers will be trained in different components of the emergency response process with experts from organizations such as CalFire, as well as animal control officers and representatives from the Riverside Sheriff’s Department and fire department.
The training involves flood driving training, the handling of animals and what to expect during a major fire, as well as the regulations associated with the work.
REARS has attracted several volunteers, many of whom are large-animal handlers who deal with horses, llamas and other animals, Gutierrez said. Most recently, REARS has seen an increase in the number of volunteers with experience handling smaller animals, many of whom go out of their way to bring their own equipment and trailers to respond to disaster situations.
“If you get to a property, you’re going to load up the horses, but you are also going to check for the dogs and cats. These folks are well geared up. A lot of it is their own equipment, which is amazing,” Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez says she would love to get more volunteers on board with REARS. Right now, she’s running with about 50 volunteers; the number fluctuates as volunteers move away, retire or otherwise change their situations. It’s especially difficult to enroll more volunteers during the holiday season.
“The academies have historically had about 20 people a year. I would really love to get more than that, but we are holding steady with about 50 tried-and-true volunteers,” said Gutierrez.
During the recent Silver Fire in Riverside County, which scorched more than 20,000 acres, several REARS volunteers were vital in helping large animals and horses and bringing in clean water and hay, according to John Welsh, spokesperson for Riverside County Animal Services.
“When we had the Silver Fire recently, in the Idyllwild area, we did actually go up, and we had some volunteers assist. But a lot of times what we do is if there aren’t evacuations needed, we do go up with our trailers filled with hay to make sure the horses that are still in the fire zones have food and the water containers [that] are cleaned and not filled with soot. Our volunteers can help with that,” said Welsh.
While wildfires seem to be the number one emergency call for the county, volunteers are also trained in the event of large-scale earthquakes, floods and other emergency situations.
REARS volunteers have also helped out in cases of animal cruelty and the impounding of large animals.
“One of the best things to know is these people are willing to use their equipment and their expertise in handling some of these animals which have not been handled and get them to a safer area and finish up with our animal cruelty cases,” said Gutierrez.
Those interested in volunteering are not required to have prior training. The only requirement is that the applicant has to be 18 or older, must pass a live scan and a background check. Other requirements include attending a special academy, held once a year in January, and any future reorientation classes and drills with REARS volunteers.