I got a call on Sunday, Oct. 8. Late. Maybe 11:15 p.m.
It’s my friend Katie, who I’ve known for close to 20 years through horses. Her voice was shaking. “There’s a fire.” Now she’s crying.
Her hillside in Santa Rosa, Calif., is on fire. Her family home where she and her parents live with their horses, goats, dogs and poultry are there. She has the truck and is flying up from Petaluma, while the trailer is next to the barn. Also, her barn, which is on the next ridge over, is also in the line of fire with more than 30 horses there.
My blood thins and I jump into action. “I’m hooking up my trailer, I’ll call all my friends!” We hang up and I call Priscilla. “Hook up. Fire in Calistoga. We have to evacuate. Meet me at 101 and follow me.” I make a few more calls and send texts. Hilary. Wake up! Can’t get ahold of her. Manna. I’m heading out, can you hook up? There’s a fire. I don’t know anything else.
I wake up my roommate and his girlfriend. His dog is barking like crazy. “Evacuating in Calistoga. There’s a fire. Horses heading here—please receive them!”
The anxiety sets in and it takes me twice as long to hook up to my trailer. I’m yelling at myself, “back 3 inches! Forward! To the right!”
Katie is on the phone again: “I can’t get through!” Crying. Panicked. “They won’t let me up the road! I have the truck. My dad can’t take the horses. Go around!”
I call another friend. “There’s fire. I can see it. Get out of there and bring your horses and all the animals to my house!”
I grab all my halters and ropes, leave my dogs at home and off I shoot down the driveway. Priscilla catches up to me on the freeway in Santa Rosa. I’m on the phone to Hilary and Manna and Katie all at the same time and looking at the map. How do I get up there?! I call my friends at the sheriff’s office. No answer. I call California Highway police, can’t get through. I call Erin at the barn where we are headed. She says we can’t get through. So I decide to take Calistoga Road. Steep and windy. Priscilla is behind me with a huge five-horse gooseneck. Katie calls, “I got through! My dad came and got me, we’re hooking up. Go to the barn and get Sunny!” (Her other horse.)
Priscilla and I start up the base of Calistoga Rd. and the wind is whipping. My stomach tightens as I remember this road—not good for long rigs or big trucks. People are coming down the mountain screaming at us from their car windows “Turn back! Fire! Don’t go this way!”
Priscilla calls, “Anakela, I can’t turn this rig around on this road, we’re stuck.” Worry in her voice. I think to myself, “What have I gotten us into?” Looking at the map, the barn is at the top of this hill, we just have to get to the top. Red and orange silhouettes the tree line above us—the fire is so close. The wind is pounding, branches fly across the road. My heart is racing and I’m grinding my teeth trying to lead my friend up the hill so we can save these horses.
Around a turn and my heart stops. There’s a tree down across the road and the power line is slacked to the ground. I put it in park in front of the tree and jump out. All I have are garden pruners and my knife. I go back to talk to Priscilla and I can see the fear. I can barely speak; I stare blankly past her. We don’t know what to do. We can’t turn around on this switchback two-lane road. Suddenly a crack and a 40′ tree falls across my tailgate and hitch of the trailer. Disbelief. The wind is howling.
Priscilla jumps out of her truck and starts to unhitch her gooseneck on the steep grade to try and escape. I try to back up but I’m stuck, the fire raging above us and smoke filling the air. Emergency lights and suddenly there are three sheriff cars next to us. The officers ask what we’re doing with these trucks on this road. “WE’RE SAVING HORSES! Just up the road!”
They ask me what I need. Chainsaws. Fuel. I didn’t have time to fuel up, truck is running out. They have neither. Suddenly two men who must have been stuck on the other side of the tree started up chainsaws. The sheriffs and I and Priscilla lift each limb and throw them to the side of the road as they cut them. “Watch the power line!”
These men cut every limb. I pull forward. One of the men jumps in Priscilla’s truck and lifts the remaining tree trunk up as she skims underneath it, ripping all five of her vents off her roof. We’re free!
“Only go right at the T,” they tell us. “The road is on fire!” Yup, I got that memo.
Priscilla calls again with spotty reception as we twist through the bending and snapping trees in the red glow of the fire. “Hurry up Anakela! Drive faster!!! We have to get out of here!” I can barely breathe I’m so scared. I step on the gas and we get to the top with cars whizzing by us the other direction.
I’m gripping the steering wheel praying that the barn is close, just as concerned about saving the horses as getting my dear friend out of this situation that I lead her into. I see the barn sign. “Don’t pull in. Park on the road and put your hazards on. We’ll load you on the street and get you out of here!” I tell Priscilla.
I pull into the farm and see trailers and a few people. “Where’s the turn around? Where’s Erin! We have room for seven horses.” I find her. She’s got her head down. She’s trying to focus and make decisions during all the chaos. “OK, get those two.”
I load them and shut the doors. OK, now what? “Help that horse into the trailer, get the other one in.” OK. People crowd around. The fire lights up the sky around us as the smoke swirls in the wind. My mind races with details. Her family? Other pets? Belongings. Get Priscilla out of here, go go go.
Horse won’t get in the trailer, doesn’t like the straight load, too many people helping, all of us with anxiety through the roof. Priscilla leads the mare to a slant load trailer instead and gets her inside. Tack? Hay? People are offering their help from the street. Two older men load hay into my truck for the mare on the special feed, details of an emergency evacuation I would have never thought about.
“Go to the fairgrounds!” Where? In the trailer down the steep hill, my truck starts screaming and grinding from under the hood. I put it in first gear and slow, not knowing if it was about to break down as I descended the steep grade with an extra 2,000 pounds behind me. I made it down the hill holding my breath, around the neighborhood streets of downtown Calistoga to the fairgrounds.
I get calls from haulers telling me they can’t get up the road I just came down. Katie calls, “Do you have Sunny and Thalla? The other horses?”
“Yes. They are safe,” I tell her. The fairgrounds are right down the hill from the fire. This doesn’t feel right, it’s too close. They tell us to go to Napa with the horses, so off we go with emergency vehicles racing past us. People are flooding the streets of Calistoga. Cars pass my trailer on the shoulder trying to get out of town. It’s pure mayhem with vehicles everywhere.
I was trying to keep my eyes on the road while haulers and horse owners keep my phone ringing. The smoke gets thicker. As we head down the 29 into Napa we see fire on the hills like lines of lava making its way down to the town. “We can’t go in there, we have to get out of this valley,” Priscilla says. OK. We’ll take these horses to my house, far away from this fire.
Hilary calls. “I just drove through a wall of fire. Like literally a wall of fire. I could feel my skin get hot in the truck. Don’t come south to the 121. The road is on fire!” Her phone cuts out. “Hello?! Hil?!!” What?! Where do we go? How do we get out of here?
I have a sick feeling, an instinct, this is bad, real bad. I’m looking at the map. Priscilla is calling. Katie is calling. Erin is calling. Looking for a way around. Got it!! Exit now! Up and around Napa. Down through American canyon to 37 with Priscilla behind me with her big rig. I see on the map that there’s a little mark on 37. What is that?
We’re leaving Vallejo, almost to the single lane surrounded by water and divided by a concrete median. I call CHP and get a message machine. I can’t lead Priscilla into danger again with all these horses! I call Vallejo Fire Department. Message machine. So I call 911 and have them patch me through to CHP. “What’s going on on 37? We have big rigs with horses and can’t turn around!” They tell us we can’t use 121. OMG. There’s a fire on this road. Surrounded by water. And we are going to be stuck. And Priscilla has no idea.
OK, just keep driving. Just keep going. We are literally surrounded by fire. My feet get heavy not knowing what to expect.
I see lights up ahead. It’s the CHP. And more fire! Huge dark smoke plumes and the tips of the flames just beyond the hill. But there’s a turnaround in the only intersection. Thank God.
Back down the narrow dark stretch of 37 we go to Vallejo. My knuckles white. “We have to go the Richmond bridge,” I tell Priscilla. She did not like the sound of that! “I know. It’s going to be OK. We just have to get home.” My mind races. How is this happening? I try to remember what the geography of the area looks like in my head, trying to think of a way out. Why is this happening? Why are there so many fires everywhere? Something is not right.
Katie calls. It must be 4 a.m. by now. They’’re almost to my house with their two horses and a Volkswagen filled with the chickens that they threw by their legs into the car and two goats which they also threw into the wagon before they raced down their burning hill.
I call my roommate and wake him up—horses coming. Lots of horses. Please put mine away. I lose Priscilla—the lights behind me were a semi truck and not her. Oh no. She calls. She took an exit and she’s stuck on a narrow road. I pull over in front of a CHP officer making a traffic stop. A traffic stop?
Cars flood the 680. I have no clue where I am. She maneuvers her way out and catches up and we make it over the Richmond bridge. I don’t even remember crossing it at this point. Priscilla gets a call that they’re evacuating her neighborhood barns. The fire is moving too fast! We can’t catch up. I’m juggling phone calls.
We make it home and unload the horses. It’s 6 a.m. My skin is gritty and dry from smoke. My mouth is dry. The horses wobble off the trailer and into the stalls. We made it. It’s Monday morning and the sun is neon pink as it rises above my house in front of a dark grey background of smoke-filled sky.
But there would be two more days of intense evacuations, and almost no sleep. Fire warnings and people losing their homes and life’s work and their lives. I only did two more hauls and stayed home to care for the animals. The other haulers continued to haul out of similar areas until there were no more calls for them.
I got a call from Katie at 3:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning that Tubbs Lane was on fire and their evacuated horses had to evacuate again. I must have woken up four haulers that morning, helping dispatch for just short of 200 horses from Calistoga and Napa. I have never in my life called a stranger at 4 a.m., and I didn’t even feel bad about it.
Friends from all the different barns were pitching in and helping horses and other livestock in both counties. We’re all exhausted and shocked and at some point we were all scared, very, very scared. But we did it. We did it.
The Gilbert family home burnt to the ground shortly after they left with their chickens and ducks and goats loose in their station wagon and horses behind the truck in the trailer.
They will rebuild, but something like this sets into you. It becomes a part of your story. And it’s not easy. Their instinct to save their animals was strong and I’m so glad she called me and I could help. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Thank you to the two men with chainsaws in their vehicles. You saved us and those horses we were able to save after that. When I can, I will purchase my own chainsaw and keep it in my truck just in case.
Anakela Carmassi operates Circle ZN Ranch, a boarding and training facility specializing in young horses, in Penngrove, Calif. She sent us this first-hand account of helping friends evacuate from the Northern California fires.