SPOKANE — Louise and Larry Clark were sleeping in their home on Friday night near Elk when they were awakened by the sound of explosions. Outside, they found a dull orange glow just past the horizon and smoke so thick it labored their breathing.
They could hear the sound of exploding propane tanks growing louder and watched the glow intensifying.
They knew they had to leave.
They frantically packed their possessions minus one — their horse, Golden.
The couple do not own a trailer or have any way to transport their beloved Appaloosa. They called neighbors and friends to find a trailer but were unsuccessful. Then a neighbor told them where they could find help.
The Spokane County Livestock Emergency Evacuation Team (SLEET) and Humane Evacuation Animal Rescue Team (HEART) partner to rescue and care for animals during an emergency.
Larry Clark called the cooperative and volunteers arrived at their 10-acre property at 4 a.m. Golden was taken to the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center, where he will remain until the Clarks believe it is safe to return home.
Despite watching their neighbors’ houses engulfed by flames and trees on their property burn like “Roman candles,” the Clarks would have stayed with Golden.
“I mean look at him, he’s beautiful,” Louise Clark said as her equestrian companion attempted to remove her brim hat with his lips on Sunday.
Many people are willing to endanger themselves in order to protect their pets, said Heather Kitchen, Spokane County emergency management program specialist. Preparation is important, she said.
“People just don’t want to leave without their animals,” Kitchen said. “We have to have plans for the animals, otherwise people are going to put their lives in jeopardy.”
The two organizations have offered their services every fire season since 2007. But Kitchen said they have never before cared for so many animals.
So far, the Spokane fairgrounds have welcomed 282 animals — about 200 of them horses. Other animals staying at the fairgrounds include pigs, goats, sheep and one protective sheep dog.
Kitchen expects these numbers to grow.
Many of those affected by the Oregon Road and Gray fires had no choice but to free their animals. Donna Orr tied her phone number around the neck of her horse, Sheyanne, then set her free from her Cheney farm.
The animal aid groups will rescue freed animals such as Sheyanne, and attempt to return them to their owners. They have not made such a rescue because access to the affected areas is still limited.
Plus, Kitchen said they do not want to get in the way of first responders.
The cooperative has similar operations throughout the Inland Northwest, including one at Clayton Fairgrounds, where Diana Birge’s chickens are residing.
After her animals were rescued Friday night from her farm near Chattaroy, her 18 goats were taken to Spokane and her 60 chickens to Clayton.
Since evacuating, Birge and her son, Robert Yeend, have spent their days traveling back and forth, ensuring their animals are OK.
Birge has lived on her farm for 30 years and remembers nothing like the emergency created by the recent wildfires.
“We’ve gone through windstorms, snowstorms and all kinds of crazy situations, but nothing like this,” Birge said.
“And it was so close.”
Yeend never thought anything like this could happen.
“Living here, you hear of significant fires, but you never think one will come to you,” he said.
“Then when you get that call, it sets in: ‘What do I do?’ “
Without the help of the animal aid groups, the two are fearful of what they would have done.
But they have been impressed with the volunteers since the moment they showed up to their farm. At the time, they could see flames in the distance, but the rescue crew made sure to get every animal.
“They weren’t leaving anybody behind. They were relentless,” Birge said, as she scratched the head of a goat appropriately named Stinkyboy.
Her animals have been well taken care of at both locations, she said. So much so that she believes her animals are not at all stressed by the closely packed accommodations.
“They’re used to having a big pasture, nothing like this. They seem bored,” she said.
Yeend had a different theory.
“We’ve lived our entire lives on a farm and aren’t used to being in a big city,” he said.
“We’re probably more stressed out than the animals.”