Scorching temperatures and little rain caused several wildfires to blaze near Fort Collins, Colo., this month, and horses and humans were forced to evacuate.
Near the beginning of June, lightning caused the High Park Fire and prompted state health officials to issue smoke warnings. The Colorado National Guard sent soldiers and helicopters to help fight the High Park Fire, but soon the blaze escalated so officials evacuated the area and closed roads. After weeks of continual threats to life and home, the blaze is now 85 percent contained, but more than 87,000 acres have burned, and the equine refugees are still in limbo.
Since the fires began almost a month ago, more than 500 horses have spent time at The Ranch Larimer County Fairgrounds and Events Complex, which serves as the sheriff department’s base of the rescue operations.
“We were getting flooded with animals,” said Bob Herrfeldt, director of The Ranch. “We’ve gone through this, unfortunately, too many times. We’re getting too good at it.”
Some horses arrived at The Ranch with their owners, but others were left at home when the fires broke out. That’s when the Larimer County Sheriff’s Posse steps in. This group of volunteers are trained horsemen. When an area is locked down due to fires, The Ranch receives reports of abandoned animals. In coordination with the firefighters and The Ranch, the Sheriff’s Posse goes with a fire escort to retrieve the animals.
“They’re the ones actually going up into the fire and pulling horses out,” Herrfeldt said. “They are the unsung heroes in this whole thing.”
Due to the vast rangeland on which livestock graze near the Rocky Mountains, it can be difficult for owners to transport their livestock out of harm’s way by trailer. As a result, when an evacuation notice is released, owners often spray paint horses or cattle with the owner’s name or ranch initials and open gates and fences.
“Animals are smarter than people when it comes to that,” Herrfeldt said. “They usually find places to go.”
When firefighters encounter animals in pens, they do the same thing—either paint the animals or tag their halters for later identification.
When these John and Jane Does, as Herrfeldt called them, come to The Ranch, the staff posts photos of them online so they can quickly be identified through the Larimer County Humane Society's Lost and Found page. Clinicians and students from nearby Colorado State University, where about 25 displaced horses are currently housed, visit The Ranch daily to donate their time, medication and resources to help any injured or sick animals.
“In our location right now, we have no John or Jane Does,” Herrfeldt said. “It’s tough to get a hundred head out of those areas.”
Most of the horses are ranch horses, used to handle other livestock such as cattle, and Herrfeldt and the staff at The Ranch have encountered difficulty keeping the horses calm and comfortable in their unfamiliar surroundings.
“Most of these animals have never been in a trailer until they were moved down to The Ranch,” he said. “They just don’t want to be here. They are open range animals.”
To counter this issue, nearby farms and ranches have offered pasture land as a more suitable long-term solution until owners can get back to their properties.
“Some folks are able to go back to their properties, but there are a good amount that just don’t know the condition of their property at this point,” said Herrfeldt. “Maybe their house is OK but their pasture is gone, or maybe their paddocks and their stalls are gone. We’re looking for places for [their horses] so that they can get outside in an environment they’re more used to.”
While large animals like horses, cattle, goats and sheep went to The Ranch, smaller animals have been transported to the Larimer Humane Society.
Horses have been taken to the Norris Penrose Event Center in Colorado Springs as well. Jennifer Hiben, barn manager at the event center, said the sheriff’s department is coordinating the operations.
On Saturday, June 23, Hiben received a call that the fire had shifted and they needed to put a new emergency plan into action.
“We made the plan about two and a half months ago, not thinking it would actually come into play,” she said. Right now the event center is the temporary home to about 150 horses, down from 165 horses a few days ago. The largest single group, 115 horses, came from the Academy Riding Stables, a nearby lesson, boarding and trail riding barn. They also took in a herd of cattle from the Flying W, a historic ranch that burned to the ground. The ranch’s 23 horses had been transported elsewhere, but they had marked the cattle and opened the fences. Hiben said everyone thought the cattle had died in the fire, but on June 28 volunteers found the herd and brought them to safety.
“They have burn marks on them. They’re wearing their battle wounds, but they all made it,” Hiben said. “It was almost like you could smell the smoke still when they got here.”
Hiben said the community poured out support for the rescue efforts. Within hours of the local broadcast station putting out a call for hay, grain and volunteers, the event center was full to the brim, and Hiben had to start turning people away and telling them to store the supplies at home if possible. They’ve also relied on locals with horse trailers to transport animals as quickly and efficiently as possible.
The Ranch also relies on shifts of volunteers, which Herrfeldt said have been full since the fires started.
But all the volunteers in the world can’t always help when the fire stands in front of the rescuers.
“I got phone calls that there were animals—a horse, some cattle,” Hiben said. “There was nothing we could do. There was no access. There are some animals that were lost, but we have no idea how many.”