The fires continue to rage in Northern California, with thousands of homes destroyed and 31 reported deaths. The Northern California horse community has bonded together, working to evacuate animals from danger and support those who have been affected by the fires.
We talked to hunter/jumper trainer Hannah Carlson, who runs her Greenwood Equestrian out of Chris Bearden’s Poplar Place Stables and Eventing facility in Briones, Calif. Carlson’s horses are safe and didn’t have to evacuate, but she’s spending her days in the places hardest hit by the fires on search and rescue missions for animals.
COTH: What’s it like out there?
Carlson: We’re doing OK. The fire is not nearly as contained as it probably is being thought to be. There’s a lot of devastation. And it’s completely random. There are some houses and properties still standing and gorgeous; there are some houses and properties absolutely burnt to the ground. You really just don’t know what you’re going to find; it’s hit or miss.
We didn’t need to evacuate our horses, thankfully. The places that are under evacuation are Santa Rosa, Calistoga, Mark West, which is a park, Napa, Glen Allen, and parts of Sonoma County. Most of Highway 12, really. The fire went right across the street from the Sonoma Horse Park [show facility]. If it had jumped the freeway, the horse park probably would be gone. Across from the Sonoma Horse Park you just see blackened fields all along Highway 37.
COTH: What have you been doing to help?
Carlson: I’m an EMT in Alameda County, and I work in conjunction with Hayward Fire through my father, who’s a firefighter. I’m just volunteering because I have enough credentials to be able to get into restricted areas. I want to help take care of the animals—do they have water? Do they need to get out? Do they need to just be checked on? Do they need us to go look for bodies or missing horses? That’s what we’ve been doing. Whatever we get requests, we’ll go and do.
I am using my work with Alameda County EMS to get me into places that are off limits, getting through barricades to check on missing horses, lost horses, lost pets, horses that were left behind and need to be checked on or fed and watered. That’s mostly what we’ve been doing all week.
Aislinn Finn and Rachel Bisaillon are working to take care of our horses back at the barn and then going to their jobs and then coming out and helping me in their spare time. I’ve just been working full days here instead of at the barn.
I just wake up and get in the truck and go where I’m needed. We stay out until about 10 at night, and we get our information through the fire department. A lot of requests come through Facebook. We’ll have people texting or calling, ‘Can you get to this area and check on these animals?’
On Tuesday, we ended up walking eight horses out of Wallis Ranch Road about 4 miles down a hill. They were in two pastures, and the groom flooded these two pastures to save them. Everything else burnt down around them, but they were OK. We got up there, and there were these eight horses just standing in these perfectly green untouched pastures surrounded by devastation because the groom had saved them.
But there was no way to get a truck and trailer up there because of the downed power lines and it was unsafe. So we got up there with Cal Fire and then walked them down to meet trailers waiting for them at the bottom of the road.
Unless you have credentials, they’re not letting you in a lot of places that are actively burning or recently burned just for safety. A lot of people are frustrated with that, but they have to understand that all the first responders are putting up these barricades because it is dangerous. I can say that having been in those areas. They’re not being difficult or disrespecting your need to take care of your animals; they’re saying that because there is literal danger.
For me, it’s a lot of social media and having connections within the fire department. For the rest of the volunteers, it’s mostly coming off of social media.
If you want to be able to go out and help in these kind of areas, you need to have some sort of information from either the people organizing or the fire department or sheriff. If you don’t, you’re really endangering yourself. You don’t want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
COTH: How has the horse community dealt with this situation?
Carlson: Hundreds of horses have been evacuated, and it’s not just horses. It’s alpacas, llamas, pigs, goats, sheep, chickens, everything.
People are calling out of work to volunteer their time and giving money and supplies. The Solano County Fairgrounds, the supplies are stacked up, shavings, feed, buckets, anything you could imagine. What they need, though, is veterinary supplies. The vets that are working at the fairgrounds, the supplies they’re using are all coming out of their own pockets.
As far as volunteer efforts go, especially on the animal side, there are a lot of people that really want to help. It’s not as organized as it could be, so I’d tell people that if they want to volunteer or get involved, go to one of the fairgrounds that are set up for the evacuated animals—Solano County Fairgrounds [in Vallejo] is still taking in animals. There was word of Santa Rosa Fairgrounds needing to evacuate, but that got lifted. [And there’s the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.] Go to those places if you want to help.
COTH: What can people in the area do to help?
Carlson: The main point we want to get out to people is to check in with officials before you go try and be helpful out in the fire areas.
Also we need the people at the fairgrounds filling water buckets and feeding and mucking stalls. You don’t even really need to be a horse person or an animal person to help; some of the stalls needed repair, and they needed carpenters and handymen to fix them. Any skill set is welcome; utilize your talents.
COTH: What’s been the emotional toll?
Carlson: It’s exhausting. We’ve had people coming up to us crying, thankful that we’re here helping. They offer us food and water; they want to give us hugs.
I think everyone’s emotionally exhausted. They either know people who have lost their homes or they’ve lost their homes themselves. That’s the human element to it—people have lost everything. They need all the help they can get.
It’s very emotional on all levels.