Mark Evans remembers the Napa County wildfires as a blur of flames, smoke, volunteers and horses, horses, horses.
He is president of the Napa Valley Horsemen’s Association. He knew the night the fires broke out that the association’s 32-acre property south of the city of Napa along Foster Road would be needed for evacuated animals.
Evans opened the gates to the Foster Road facility and people with horses came from Soda Canyon, the Carneros—wherever the fires happened to be burning at a particular time. The association usually has 15 horses staying on its land and had estimated it could handle 60 in an evacuation.
“It went beyond that real fast,” Evans said. “When the sun came up, there were 120.”
The association served about 250 horses that came at various times over three weeks, with 125 there at the peak. Many stayed in temporary pens assembled in the pastures.
“They were crammed everywhere that you could think of a horse could fit,” Evans said. “And it wasn’t just horses. We had a few goats, a couple of cows in there – and lots of people.”
On that first morning after the fires broke out, association officials realized they had 60 or so people on the property they had to feed. They went to the supermarket.
“We bought every doughnut, coffee, Danish and everything else,” Evans said.
Jonnie Hagan, an association board member, came to the horse evacuation center as both a volunteer and a beneficiary. She evacuated 15 horses from boarding space that first night as the Atlas Fire raged.
“They were stressed,” Hagan said.
So were association members. The sky was aglow to the east from the Atlas Fire and the west from the Partrick fire. They wondered just how close the Partrick fire might be, though it turned out to be some distance.
“You didn’t know,” Evans said, adding the association made its own evacuation plan.
That first night for Evans and other volunteers included driving down Highway 121 with trailers into the Carneros area to try to rescue some horses. Flames lit the sky as the wind-blown Partrick fire crossed the highway at Haire Lane.
Despite the dire situation, no roadblock hindered their progress. They were free to drive across a rapidly charring landscape, probably because so many other places in Napa County were ablaze and emergency crews were spread thin.
“There was not a fire truck or police car to be seen,” Evans said. “It happened so fast.”
They couldn’t rescue the horses from Haire Lane, but the horses survived and later were evacuated to the Napa Valley Horsemen’s Association.
Evans won a Sharing the Spirit nomination for his efforts. In a sense, though, he’s also a stand-in for a bigger volunteer force that instantly transformed the Napa Valley Horsemen’s Association into an animal evacuation center.
He, Hagan and other association members took a week or more off from their jobs. Several hundred volunteers from across Northern California lent a hand at various times.
“They were doing everything from cleaning pens to helping assemble pens to sorting out donations,” Evans said.
One fear was that a sick horse might spread its illness to other horses. The Napa Community Animal Response Team and veterinarian Claudia Sonder set up a biosecurity plan to prevent cross-contamination.
Veterinarians came to offer their skills. Ailing horses had to be tested to see if they had a contagious disease or were suffering from breathing the smoky air.
The association spent over $10,000 in operational fees on the horse evacuation center, Evans said. On top of that, people made $20,000 to $30,000 worth of donations, everything from halters to truckloads of hay.
“We did a lot of work, but it wasn’t just us,” Evans said.
“We had help,” Hagan said.
Evans recalled that such events as the Las Vegas shooting happened before the wildfires. It made him wonder what the world was coming to.
“Then this happens, and as bad as it all was, what we saw here was the community come together,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it before. It was a get-it-done kind of mood and it was awesome.”