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Ranchers, farmers could be allowed to enter emergency evacuation areas with new county pass

Pam Bryson and caretaker Salvador Eguiarte unload Bryson's horse during the Valley Fire Sept. 10, 2020.
Pam Bryson and caretaker Salvador Eguiarte unload Bryson’s quarter horse Fox after it was evacuated during the Valley Fire in Lawson Valley on Sept. 10, 2020.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Supervisors approve program to allow businesses to care for animals, crops during emergencies

Ranchers and farmers will be able to enter emergency evacuation zones to care for animals or crops, under a new “Ag Pass” system the County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved Tuesday.

The pass will allow commercial farmers in the unincorporated county into restricted areas during wildfires or other emergencies to feed animals, transport livestock or water crops, once fire authorities or law enforcement determine conditions are safe.

“The devastating wildfires over the past two decades not only impacted the safety of residents, but agriculture and livestock operators were also forced to flee their properties,” said Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Holly Porter. “With agriculture and livestock representing critical sectors of our local economy, the proposed program will enhance the sustainability of these businesses.”

Severe wildfires in recent years have endangered animals, crops and orchards and forcing the owners to leave their farms unattended during the emergencies, officials said. Some farmers and ranchers have been reluctant to evacuate, fearing that they might be unable to return to care for their animals, said Supervisor Jim Desmond, who brought the proposal to the board with Supervisor Joel Anderson.

“The Ag Pass program could potentially encourage more people to evacuate knowing that they may be able to get back in sooner than the general population to care for their assets and care for their livestock,” he said.

To qualify for the pass, agricultural operators must provide documentation of their business, and must attend a four-hour fire safety training that covers such topics as fire behavior and weather, avoiding entrapment and incident command. Only managerial-level employees are eligible for the passes, and employees can’t be required to apply for or use them, according to the county.

Employers must provide health and safety protections for pass holders, including proof of insurance, masks and safety gear, and post-exposure health screenings for employees who re-enter the evacuation area.

The passes are valid for daylight hours only. Access is not assured, but will be allowed at the discretion of fire and law enforcement officials.

The program will be introduced in phases, with passes available to the county’s 125 cattle and horse ranchers this fiscal year, the board letter stated. In the 2023-24 fiscal year, all 4,000 commercial agricultural operators in the county would be eligible to apply.

Supervisor Nora Vargas asked whether the county could provide similar passes to private owners of livestock or horses. Desmond said he would also support that option, and suggested that the board consider adding non-commercial livestock owners to the list of eligible property owners after the first two phases of the Ag Pass program are complete.


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