The Diablo winds on the night of Oct. 8 seemed to be gusting from every direction. At least, that’s what Grayson Broyles remembered about that night. Then her mother woke her at 10 because of the Atlas Peak fire.

That's when she thought about Poppy, a horse she said was stabled up in Soda Canyon directly below Atlas Peak. She wanted to get Poppy out.

Broyles, who is 22, said she called Mary Taylor at Sunrise Horse Ranch for advice – the stable where Broyles worked part-time. Taylor called the owner who believed that at that time the horse was not in danger. So, instead,  Taylor asked Broyles to come up to Calistoga to help at Sunrise at Tamber Bey on Tubbs Lane. It was a fateful decision.

Broyles was still nursing a foot injury that occurred in August loading horses during the Turtle Rock fire evacuation from R-Ranch. She was still on disability from that accident, but nonetheless she put on the orthopedic walking brace boot she had been prescribed, got into her truck and headed up to Sunrise Horse Rescue.

"I just hoped someone else would be able to evacuate Poppy," Broyles remembered thinking.

Broyles’ relationship with Sunrise is longstanding: growing up with the horses, and volunteering, she had become increasingly focused on her personal goal to become an equine medical tech, and until her injury was Sunrise's part-time equine health technician.

Meanwhile, Dione Carston in Deer Park had received a phone call from the stable where her horse Charley was boarded at Blossom Creek Farm just off of Highway 128 near Bennett Lane. The voice on the other end of the line sounded panicky to her. “There’s a fire and we’ve been ordered to evacuate,” she remembered the voice saying. “We have five minutes to get out. Your horse is in the barn.”

Carston said that she was immediately concerned, but her husband Hamilton Nicolson was already springing into action. “What are you doing?” she asked.

“We’re going to get Charley,” he said. They hopped into the truck and headed toward Calistoga.

By the time Carston and Nicolson got to Calistoga the road north to the stable was already blocked by firefighters. St. Helena Fire Chief John Sorensen had also just arrived on duty, assigned to a firefighting group. Everything was very confusing, Carston remembered. The fire had already jumped Highway 128 and was moving quickly. But Nicolson knew Sorensen and the three of them got permission from the officer in charge to drive in to try to get Charley out. What they found at the stable was sobering.

According to Carston – and later collaborated by Sorensen – it was the small drive leading into the ranch with fire quickly moving through the trees and behind the stable’s barn and up the hill. Smoke was everywhere. Power was off and though it was pitch dark, the sky was lit by flames. But, according to Carston, in the middle of it all was a small young woman in a walking boot and a man releasing the frightened horses from the barn into the stable’s arena.

It was Grayson Broyles and Doug Scranton.

Sorensen later said that the arena was the only logical and safe place for the horses to go. “The horses were understandably panicked,” he recalled later. “The arena had been cleared all around and there was a concrete curb surrounding it. There were a lot of horses there.”

Broyles had initially gone to Sunrise, but had been told to wait. “It was too soon to move those horses,” she said of the Sunrise herd. But then suddenly, she said, she remembered the horses up the road at Blossom Creek Farm and she decided to try to rescue them.

“Doug said he wanted help,” she recalled. “But he said he didn’t know what to do. I just said ‘I’ll show you.’” The two of them drove up to the road block and obtained permission from the fire officer to attempt the rescue.

As soon as Carston and Nicolson spotted Broyles and Scranton in the dark at the barn, they too immediately pitched in to help. They led Charley out into the arena and, then helped move the other horses too. When all the horses were out, the ad hoc squad of rescuers carted buckets of water to them and laid out some food. Broyles remembered, “There were maybe 15-20 horses we got out of the barn.”

“Then I got the call,” said Sorensen. “We had to get out.”

Broyles and Scranton headed back to Sunrise to help there. But the night had only just begun, and frantic calls for help were being fielded from other stables up and down the county. With fires to the north, the east, and the west there were no safe places for people to haul their horses, and little information about how to handle the crisis.

Broyles met up with several other horse rescuers up at R-Ranch off of Capell Valley Road, and – again on the spur of the moment -- she suggested, “Why don’t we work together?”

That’s how a second ad hoc horse rescue squad was formed. This group of eight horse owners and lovers became what Broyles called “my hauling squad.” And there were a lot of horses that would need their help.

“We always asked permission to remove the horses,” she said. “Some people were really grateful. Some said they didn’t know what to do. But we always asked for permission first.”

Over the next week this ad hoc squad roamed widely trying to rescue as many horses as they could find: 46 from one location; 17 mares and foals from another; on and on evacuating perhaps over 300 in total.

Broyles said they took horses as far as the Solano County Fairgrounds and – with the fires blazing across Napa County over the next week – they found little time to rest before the next call would come in. “It was exhausting,” she said. But she said this with a smile because, she said, she loved the horses.

And what about Poppy? The horse she had initially set out to rescue up in Soda Canyon?  As the fire on Atlas Peak progressed, Sunrise Horse Rescue did in fact send another crew to rescue Poppy.  But...

“Poppy didn’t make it,” Broyles said with a frown. “The power lines fell over the road and they couldn’t get to her. Poppy got badly burned on her side.” She paused for a moment more. “The vet had to put Poppy down.”

Broyles said what she wanted most was to thank the hauling squad. She carefully listed out their names, checking her cell phone several times: Elaine Thomas, KC Cutright, Aaron Bay, Cody Barron, Michael McGraw, Matthew McGraw, Rachel Lathum, and Trevor Martini. “They’re the ones who need to be recognized,” she said.


Tom Stockwell is currently a staff writer for the St. Helena Star. He is an author of fiction and non-fiction books and has been a working journalist for a variety of technical publications as well as a consultant for numerous wineries in the Napa Valley.