I walked out of the barn on Sept. 7, and the evening light had gone orange and ashy. The world smelled of smoke. When I had walked in barely an hour before, everything was normal.
It’s a scent that hasn’t left my nostrils for a week now.
I was terrified there was a fire nearby. It turns out that was prescient.
Agustin Cisneros, our barn manager, also looked concerned. He called the fire department. When you have 50 horses and a wooden barn, you don’t wait to find out if there’s a fire.
There wasn’t a fire. Yet.
They told him the smoke was rolling in from the wildfires in California. That seemed unbelievable, given how bad the air was and the ash falling on the barn, in the water troughs and all around. The smoke was actually rolling in from a couple of fires in Oregon to our north, Beachie Creek and Lionshead.
But I was unsettled. Oregon was primed for fire. We’ve had an ongoing drought, dry vegetation, and then we were hit by bone dry Santa Ana-esque winds from the east, something that just doesn’t happen here in the summer.
Cairo seemed fine. She munched her hay and drank water and stared at me limpid-eyed. We’d had a nice little jump earlier; I had a horse camping trip planned for the weekend.
Agustin assured me he’d text if there was an issue, and I left, eyes watering and using my COVID mask as a pathetic shield against the smoke. Only a properly fitted N95 mask or better helps with the fine particulate matter of wildfire smoke, but my paper mask under another cloth mask made me feel slightly better.
I couldn’t sleep that night. Around 11:30 p.m., a press release came in. The upside and downside of being a journalist is that you get firsthand information on the good and bad events of the world.
The community of Blue River, where my friend and coworker Elisha Young lives, was under a Level 3 “Go Now!” evacuation order. I texted her, apologizing for the lateness, but making sure she got it.
“We are leaving now,” she wrote back.
Blue River is a lovely rural forest community along the McKenzie River outside of Eugene-Springfield where I live.
Blue River, as it once existed, is no more.
It’s largely burned up in what is now called the Holiday Farm Fire, which as I write is more than 160,000 acres and growing. The fire started at 8:20 p.m. By midnight people were running for their lives.
Oregon has three levels of evacuation: Level 1, know that there is danger, and you might need to go; Level 2, be prepared; and Level 3, go now!
People with horses and livestock usually start to leave at Level 1. My friend Janice Mackey did that, and by the time the horses and sheep were loaded from her place outside town in Marcola, it had shot up to Level 3.
And now like Elisha and thousands of others in Oregon, Washington and California, she watches and waits and hopes for her home and her community in the path of the flames.
The Beachie Creek and Lionshead fires appear to be merging outside of Portland. Like the fires here, the area where Rich and Shelley Fellers and Flexible live went from Level 1 to Level 3 in hours, forcing them to evacuate.
Our barn made an evacuation plan with who would take which horses where. Cairo’s stuff is packed, and if we get the order, I will take her and her “boyfriend” Titan and a mare named Angel, then come back for whoever might need help.
A couple of people have asked why I don’t just go, take Cairo and run for it. The leading edge of the fire is 20 miles from my barn via the road, much closer as the crow flies, and much of the land in between is tinder-like forest. I love this horse. I can’t bear the thought of anything happening to her. But for one, Oregon is on fire. There are fires on the coast, to the south, to the north and to the west. The air is horrible—it’s actually off the air-quality charts—and you can’t escape it. Or two, I could take her somewhere only to have a fire start there. More fires are popping up as even the least spiritual people I know pray for rain—which may come next week.
Also with 40,000 Oregonians evacuated and about 500,000 (10 percent of the state’s population) under Level 1 or 2 order, I refuse to take the spot of a horse that is in active danger. We are three miles and a river from Level 1. So while I am not sleeping much, I am hanging in there and sending good energy to all my evacuated friends, human and equine.
Last year, and the year before, my problems were my own, from my own health scare to Cairo’s injury and long, long rehab. Then COVID hit, and we all began to share this strange global pain and stress. I lost someone I cared about to the pandemic, and so have many others. You can feel sorry for yourself—we all do sooner or later—but it’s this weird shared trauma that none of us can escape from, with the world turned upside down.
Then mid-pandemic, Black Lives Matter gave white people like me a clearer window into the daily stress and trauma of being a person of color in this country.
Now with Oregon’s wildfires, our whole state—and much of the West—feels like it’s under siege. Towns are destroyed. The governor has declared a statewide conflagration. Having air quality too bad to ride my horse is the least of my worries as we find out about lives and communities lost to the flames, but I long for normalcy and my happy place on Cairo’s back after days of smoke, flames and destruction. They say when the smoke starts to lift we will be able to see the fires from town. That’s how close they are.
I have learned how much I don’t know. I always had an evacuation plan, but what if that barn was threatened? I now have an emergency go-bag for me, one for my dogs, and of course the biggest one is for Cairo—basically my horse trailer is her personal go-bag.
And I have so many questions now: Is there any way I can help Cairo breathe? What do I do for her after she’s been exposed to hazardous air for a week? When I’m not working or stressing I’m researching. California has seen this before; so has Australia.
After some googling that repeatedly led to the same (useful) information about horses and wildfires from UC Davis I did what responsible horse owners do: Contacted my vet. Cairo will be getting her lungs checked when the smoke clears, and she’ll get some time off, followed by a nice, slow return to work. Since she is not directly in the fire, she should need only a couple weeks, but as I balance the energy of a fit mare with a need to be quiet, you can’t be too careful with tiny particulate matter that goes deep in the lungs.
I’m following vet advice to keep Cairo hydrated—wet hay and feed near water—and watching for coughs and discharge. We joke about N95s for horses as I gently wipe her nostrils clean.
But through all this, I love the way people have been generous and come together. Dr. Rachel Gottlieb took the time to respond to my worries in a week when she was helping to evacuate the vet clinic she’s affiliated with outside Portland. People are opening their barns to accept evacuating horses, offering their trailers for transport, donating money to offset costs for barns taking evacuated horses. Not everyone has the money and vehicles to get animals moved quickly, but the fire has upper-level barns and backyard horses in its path.
They are organizing official efforts to go back into burned areas when it’s safe to do so to search for animals that couldn’t get out because the fire spread too quickly. We know human lives are lost; we don’t know how many. We don’t know how many hearts are broken.
I thought I missed normal life and horse shows when COVID began, but adding wildfire to a global pandemic? I’m tired of the smoke-filled skies, headaches from bad air and the strange orange sun. I’m tired of worrying for my friends and my animals. I’m trying to be there and help those who need me, get a newspaper out each week, and still kiss my wild mare’s nose.
Hopefully firefighters will be able to contain the fires; hopefully the weather will cooperate. For now, I will fuss over my hot little mare and groom the ashes off her coat while she nibbles at my pockets for treats, and I’ll dream of clear skies and green forests.
If you want to help, you can donate to the American Red Cross or support these local rescue efforts.
Camilla Mortensen is an amateur eventer from Eugene, Oregon, who started blogging for the Chronicle when she made the trek to compete in the novice three-day at Rebecca Farm in Montana. Camilla works as a newspaper reporter by day and fits training and competing Cairo around her job.