As evacuation notices were upgraded Tuesday night for residents in Estacada, Ore., Kati and J.R. Anderson knew they needed to leave.
Around 8 p.m. Tuesday, the Andersons, owners of SoulMate Ranch, began loading dozens of horses. With other local stables also evacuating or at capacity, the ranchers drove north.
“It’s a pretty big undertaking to move that many animals,” Kati Anderson said. “We just had to head north with a song and a dance and figure everything out.”
By early Wednesday morning, the Andersons became the first group of Oregon horse owners to arrive at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds with their animals. The fairgrounds housed about 160 horses — full capacity — by the end of the week.
Several equestrian groups in Clark County spent most of the week fielding requests for displaced horses and other livestock. By Friday, with the Oregon horses safe at the fairgrounds, the groups — like the Clark County Saddle Club — continued to coordinate locations for animals and owners to stay.
At the fairgrounds, and on private properties throughout the county, volunteers dropped off items such as hay and food. Throughout the week, horse owners in Clark County hitched up their trailers and went to stables and ranches in evacuation zones to transport animals.
“The community is just alive with volunteers,” said Lori Harris of the Clark County Executive Horse Council.
Harris estimated that more than 700 horses have relocated from Oregon to Clark County, plus another 75 or so from within Washington. The council is keeping a running list of available locations, and space for about 300 more horses were available as of Saturday afternoon.
Harris encouraged anyone still in need of help to contact her at 360-798-3515.
Opening the gates
The Andersons had heard of the fairgrounds as a destination for evacuating horse owners. But when they arrived around 1 a.m. Wednesday, the gates were locked.
After a chain of calls, including to Clark Regional Emergency Response Agency dispatchers, fairgrounds manager John Morrison heard about the Andersons’ ordeal.
“Obviously we were not going to turn them away,” Morrison said. “They were very organized, very self-sufficient.”
Morrison gave them a tour of the facilities, readied the stables and handed them the key to the gate.
“We’re basically the camp hosts,” J.R. Anderson said.
After a few hours, the horses had been bedded in the stables. The Andersons were ready to return to their campsite for some rest — around 4 a.m.
Chelle Smidt, co-owner of Coyote Moon Ranch in Oregon City, Ore., had a similar experience the next night.
Her ranch is farther away from the fires, but Smidt could see plumes of smoke, and friends living on a nearby ridge could see flames getting closer.
“Finally we just said, ‘We’re leaving,’ ” Smidt said.
She started loading horses and basic necessities around 9 p.m.
One horse owner who boards at the ranch made contacts with people, who brought several trailers to help. Smidt initially believed the strangers were taking the horses to Yamhill County, creating some confusion.
“My first thought was, ‘Oh my God, they took the horses. We’ll never see them again,’ ” said Smidt, in a joking mood by Friday. “It was a big-time emotional thing, but we got everybody out.”
Horse handlers needed to manage not just the space and nutrition needs of the animals, but also the possibility that they would spook due to the stressful circumstances.
One of the horses, Pete, 24, has lived at Coyote Moon for most of his life. He has poor eyesight and had only been in a trailer about five times, Smidt said.
When his turn came to be loaded, Pete was nervous. He made it halfway into the trailer before jerking his head and trying to back out.
But after the initial hesitation, Pete entered the trailer in a timely fashion.
Smidt was describing how well Pete handled the situation to a reporter Friday. During the conversation, Pete’s owner — Deborah Mann of Milwaukie, Ore. — walked him around the corral at the fairgrounds and wanted to make sure her horse’s handling of the situation wouldn’t go unnoticed.
“Tell him how good he did,” Mann said to Smidt.
Veterinarian on site
Dr. Ric Torgerson, Southwest Washington regional veterinarian with the state Department of Agriculture, inspected the fairgrounds Friday and spoke to owners about how to keep their horses safe from infectious diseases.
“They came from a stressed environment. They were transported.” Torgerson said. “We just don’t want to bring something into the state, nor do we want to send something back to Oregon.”
Earlier in the week, due to evacuation needs, the Department of Agriculture temporarily lifted health inspection requirements before horses enter the state.
The fairgrounds accepted evacuated horses during previous disasters, such as the 2017 Columbia River Gorge fire. Plus, the horses are only expected to stay about a week.
Torgerson is recommending that horses in the evacuation locations keep their distance — much like measures humans are taking this year. He advised owners to keep horses from different original locations in separate stalls, use separate equipment and offer them different buckets of water.
After walking around the fairgrounds Friday, Torgerson pointed out the construction of the stables, noting that they restrict possibilities of horses in adjoining stalls touching.
“It looks like they’re doing everything possible to keep it as safe as possible,” Torgerson said. “It’s a fairly low likelihood of disease as long as they don’t intermingle.”
As of Friday afternoon, the SoulMate and Coyote Moon ranches were intact. Aided by improving weather, firefighters were starting to get a handle on some of the fires.
Smidt’s husband remained in Oregon City to care for two stallions. She returned to the ranch Thursday for supplies, an endeavor that took hours longer than usual due to traffic and closed roads.
Ash was falling in Oregon City on Thursday, but the air had cleared slightly by Friday.
“I feel better,” Smidt said. “Everybody is really friendly here.”
With their ranch in a more intense fire danger zone, the Andersons remained hopeful about their property, though they’ve heard of looting in the area.
“The best thing is the overwhelming support of people coming by, just selfless kindness,” Kati Anderson said of her temporary Clark County neighbors.
She then began to cry. Her longtime friend Tarrie Miller, owner of Whispering Oaks Stables in Ridgefield, put her arm around her.
“Gosh, Kati, you’re so deserving,” Miller said.