RES­CU­ING HORSES IN GHOST TOWN

San Francisco Chronicle - - WINE COUNTRY FIRES - By Tara Dug­gan Tara Dug­gan is a San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle staff writer. Email: tdug­gan@sfchron­i­cle.com Twit­ter: @taradug­gan

On Thurs­day around mid­day, Sacra­mento large-an­i­mal vet­eri­nar­ian Emily Putt and Pe­taluma horse hauler Hilary Hansen rode past the po­lice bar­ri­cade to a ranch in Cal­is­toga. Their mis­sion: to res­cue three horses stranded af­ter the Wine Coun­try fires.

Putt, 27, and Hansen, 29, had been strangers be­fore the 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.

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 horse shoer 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 red-brown 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 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.

“To get in a dark box, you have to have some faith in your hu­mans.” Anne Houghton, of Aure­ole Ranch Horse Res­cue

“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.

Leah Mil­lis / The Chron­i­cle

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.

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