RESCUING HORSES IN A GHOST TOWN
On Thursday around midday, Sacramento large-animal veterinarian Emily Putt and Petaluma horse hauler Hilary Hansen drove past the police barricade to a ranch in Calistoga.
Putt, 27, and Hansen, 29, had been strangers before the Wine Country fires struck, but since meeting at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on Tuesday they have become fast friends by working together throughout the fire zones, rescuing animals that owners had to leave behind during evacuations.
They knew that three horses were stranded on the ranch. The two volunteers, along with Hansen’s friend Omid Boostani, 26, have evacuated at least 50 animals themselves, assisted with another 75 evacuations and helped coordinate countless others. They are among dozens of people trying to help stranded animals. Putt estimates hundreds of people have donated hay and other supplies, including money for fuel. Others have made connections between animal owners and volunteers.
Putt administers tranquilizers on the stressed horses and Hansen orients horse trailers around the tightest curves. Her trailers are allowed to travel behind barricades, meaning that Putt and Hansen can go onto closed roads to move animals, often when the owners themselves cannot.
“We went into one really sketchy evacuation,” said Putt, still wearing the jeans, cowboy boots and turquoise surgical shirt that she wore on Tuesday, as she recounted how the two had become surrounded by fire on a road with trees on both sides. The flames climbing up towering eucalyptus were clear in the night sky. “That was Tuesday night, and I haven’t looked back.”
“That’s how the horse community works,” said Mike Piro, a horseshoer for 20 years and owner of the ranch where Hansen lives. Piro’s property has become the staging ground for the three trailers from Hansen’s business, Hansen’s Horse Hauling. “We do whatever we can to help.”
The elderly couple that owned the Calistoga ranch Putt and Hansen arrived at Thursday had left behind five cats, five horses and a sheep when they were evacuated on Wednesday. Later that day, Monica Stevens of Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch was able to get out three of the cats, two of the horses and the sheep. But one of the remaining horses wouldn’t leave with the others and the other two were too wild to handle without a vet.
Stevens had heard the animals didn’t have water since the pumps were down, and the fire was on the hills above. That’s when Putt and Hansen were called in.
As Hansen drove through Calistoga on Thursday, it was smokier than in St. Helena and Yountville but not terrible, and eerily quiet. At least a dozen Cal Fire vehicles and other fire trucks had gathered at the Old Faithful Geyser without much of a sense of urgency.
But the mood would soon shift.
Hansen pulled up to the ranch, and they got out to look for the horses. Behind the house in a corral was a gray mare and the two wild bays, a mother and son, a mare and a gelding with redbrown coats. Hansen maneuvered the vehicle as close as she could to the back of the barn area, and they closed off all the barn doors and opened the corral. The three horses galloped toward one of the stalls on the perimeter.
Getting three large animals into a trailer with strangers is not easy. The gray mare had a halter and was fairly calm, but the bays didn’t have halters. It took some time for Putt to get one on the bay mare. She didn’t even try to with the gelding, who was stomping and sighing, not letting anyone touch him.
“Hey, buddy. Hey, sweetie,” Stevens cooed, trying to calm him. “You wanna see your girlfriend?”
In previous rescues, Putt had been able to give upset animals a mild sedative. But the gelding was moving around too much for a shot. “It’s not safe for me to stick him when he’s frantic,” she said.
Putt thought they should put the gray mare in the trailer first. “She’s pretty well settled,” she said.
The group had constructed a fenced off area to move the animals about 100 feet from the barn to the trailer. Hansen led the gray mare there while they kept the bays in the barn stall. She began walking into the trailer but
stopped halfway up the ramp. There was no forcing her.
“These horses are not handled much,” said Anne Houghton of Aureole Ranch Horse Rescue in Napa Valley, who noted the lack of care to the animals’ hooves. She was there to help after moving her own horses and being evacuated from her house in Knights Valley. “To get in a dark box, you have to have some faith in your humans.”
After about 15 minutes, the gray mare finally stepped all the way into the trailer and the stall doors closed around her.
Overhead, the helicopters were getting closer and louder. A patch of smoke gathering up on the hill was looking denser and darker. A 747 full of flame retardant flew by.
It was time to move the bays.
The women began slowly leading the two remaining horses — the mother and son — toward the trailer, and suddenly the gelding ran straight into it and just as quickly turned around and ran back out, which caused the gray mare in the trailer to start to stomp and neigh. Putt and Hansen yelled at him and guided him back into the barn, panting.
“I just don’t like that we don’t know where this fire is,” Putt said. At least during night evacuations they could see the flames.
Putt decided to give both mares some mild sedation.
“Mama’s sedated, so maybe that will calm down Baby,” she said.
They tried leading the bays toward the trailer again. By now they were sweating and stressed, but the gelding finally made his way in. Then they tried to repeat the same scenario with the second mare, who just wouldn’t make it past the ramp. Hansen held her rope, giving her gentle kicks on the belly and a few swear words.
The light changed from golden and bright to hazy and overcast.
Finally, Hansen was able to give the mare a longer lead and pull her gently, slowly inside. As soon as she was in all the way, and the gelding was calm, they closed the trailer doors and windows.
It was time to drive away, past rumbling Cal Fire trucks and two speeding police cars with their sirens going, back through empty Calistoga and on south to the city of Sonoma, to unload the animals on the private ranch that would hold them. And then it would be time to start a new rescue.
Tara Duggan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @taraduggan
Omid Boostani (left) and Anthony Jennings lead a horse to a trailer as they help evacuate horses from a Glen Ellen ranch. Many animals had to be left behind as people evacuated.
Emily Putt tries to calm an anxious horse as she and fellow rescuers work to get horses left behind at an evacuated ranch outside Calistoga into a trailer.