The New Mexico Fires—An Equine Story

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May 14, 2000—The last few days have been, well, interesting. I DON'T recommend it. The fire damage is truly devastating around town, and as I went in to work last night, there were still fires burning merrily in the larger tree stumps all along the road, miles of blasted landscape where ponderosa and pinon forest once stood, smoke everywhere and everyone has that hollow-eyed, damaged look, even if they still have a house. Five or more folks in my little office group have lost their homes or their parent’s homes—and that’s out of a group of about 20 people. Big percentage. Thanks to Carolyn and Michael Jackson of Sunjay Farm, north of Santa Fe in Rio Chama, N.M., we had a safe refuge with beds and couches for small-to-moderate mammals, and paddocks, stalls and a racetrack infield for large mammals.

As the southern California folks can probably attest, there’s a really hideous, gut-wrenching feeling to something like this. Smoke, damage, ashes, friends still needing places to stay since our neighboring town of Los Alamos is still unsafe. News reports that you can't tear your eyes from although you’ve had no sleep for 36 hours. We're on Day 8: enough is enough. They opened White Rock last night for returning residents and their guests from Los Alamos, and we’re trickling back in from all over the state. And watching the wind carefully. We got back this afternoon, aired the smoke out of the tack and feed rooms, and scrubbed the waterers out with bleach after picking out the trash and dead birds.

Apparently folks got all the horses out of Los Alamos and the stable area didn’t burn, although there was heavy, heavy smoke and heat from surrounding canyons. By May 9, we ended up with 15 horses at our place, and then the next night/morning, got the cue to evacuate all of White Rock—it took four hours to get one mile from the house to the barn.

There were several critters picked up at the last minute by Red Cross and Santa Fe Animal Shelter volunteers. I can’t begin to imagine why they were left there, when so many offers of trailers had been made. The animal shelter folks and their many volunteers have been incredibly great, and done brilliant things like come through the National Guard roadblocks, grab critters, then take them to the Santa Fe Rodeo Grounds where they snapped pictures with a digital camera and posted them on a Web page for worried owners to find without having to trudge from one shelter to another. I’m still looking for one of our cats though, the “good one,” who hasn't been seen since the day before the evacuation.

The day of the evacuation I had taken my mare, Gracie, and her buddy Nick, down to Sunjay Farm to get them out of the way just in case we needed their stalls or the situation got more serious. Good thing, the evacuation was announced that night. I had a couple of horses to take down off the mountain, but knew that my own were already safe and settled.

One of the horses I took down that night/morning, Ginger, hopped right in the trailer, with the help of some grain and lots of “good girl, good girl, step on there.” Her owner had called, frantic, from southern New Mexico where her husband had taken her the night before and she was terrified that we'd leave her mare to burn. As if.

The other was a filly being led down the mountain by her hysterical owner, who couldn’t get her to load on any of the three other rigs they'd tried that night. My rig, a big, airy Sundowner TB walkthrough model, with a friendly ramp and lots of hay in front, was evidently less threatening and the filly climbed aboard in the grocery store parking lot, as fire engines and National Guard humvees rumbled around us and we waved their helpful drivers back. I think if she’d refused to step in after a while, I'd have taken up the drivers’ offers to just pick her up and stuff her aboard—but, between grain in front and a longe line gently urging her from around her hindquarters, she decided the trailer was not a bad option.

What have we learned?

  1. 1) Be sure every horse you know will load. Not just your own, but go out of your way to have neighborhood loading clinics, club sessions, etc. since you may depend on each other at odd times. Do your barnmates and neighbors know how to load in case you're not there?
  2. 2) You know those emergency plans people suggest you develop? Good things. Do them. Have a place to go and go there early if at all possible. Better to look stupid than be toasted/flooded, etc.
  3. 3) Don't leave your single-malt scotch at the house; you'll want it in the shelter later.