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Animals Forced To Evacuate California Wildfires Too

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Northern California is burning. The state's been ravaged by the deadliest wildfires in its history. At least 35 people have been killed, and hundreds more are missing. Thousands of firefighters are trying to contain the flames. Clouds of smoke hover in the skies, even in San Francisco.

This is a farming area with vineyards and stables. Christy Gentry lives there. Her house in Santa Rosa has been spared. But earlier this week, the fires billowed toward the stables where she works. She and her husband set out on a midnight operation to save the animals and bring them to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. She joined us from Santa Rosa. Thanks so much for being with us.

CHRISTY GENTRY: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having us.

SIMON: Christy, what was it like to rescue 26 horses in the dark of midnight and bring them miles away to the fairgrounds?

GENTRY: So when we got to the barn, there was a glow on the ridge. We couldn't actually see the flames, but it looked pretty close and there was a lot of smoke and ash in the air.

We started with the horses farthest from the main barn, where we were loading, brought them in. We had several volunteers, and within an hour and 20 minutes, all of 26 horses were loaded and on their way safely to the fairgrounds. It was amazing.

SIMON: And they were pretty calm because they're used to going to horse shows and stuff.

GENTRY: Yeah, they're used to traveling. They were pretty calm. I also think we had a couple that were hysterical, one that we had to wait till the very end and we thought we were going to have to leave. You know, I don't think the horses can really see the fire, but they know what's going on. They know that there's danger. And he was quite hysterical. It took about 10 women - he got loose twice - to load him in. But we finally did get him in the trailer, and everyone was safe. Ponies were caught in vineyards. There's been some chaos to it...

SIMON: Yeah.

GENTRY: ...For certain.

SIMON: How do you get a pony out of the vineyard and into a truck?

GENTRY: People go armed with treats and halters, and so they're able to catch them. And, you know, mostly, if you're calm, the horses stay calm.

SIMON: Horses eat a lot, don't they? How do you care for every one?

GENTRY: Sure thing. Well, many of us were able to grab hay and some supplies as we were evacuating our barn. So we came with food and some items in hand. But the local seed stores have been donating all kinds of hay and shavings and pellets. So we have had, again, tremendous support from the local community, making sure that every horse here is fed.

SIMON: Can you smell the smoke, see the fire?

GENTRY: There - while we cannot see the fire any longer from where we are, and it's very, very smoky. There's a ton of ash. There has been a ton of ash. Everyone's lungs are, you know, feeling constricted. The dogs are coughing because it's so thick in the air. So the scene itself is still dismal, for sure.

SIMON: But people are helping each other.

GENTRY: People are coming together. You know, when there's an emergency like this, if the fire happens too fast and you can't get out in time, you have to set the horses free.

Well, you got to put halters on, you got to label them. Those can burn off in a fire, so we actually handwrote with a Sharpie pen on all of our horses hooves the phone number. If there is some marking on the horse on - with ink, then we can identify, at least, who to call to find out where the horse will eventually need to be, or to let that person know that we have that horse.

SIMON: How do you fill your days there - all these people and horses staying at the fairgrounds?

GENTRY: We're caring for other people's animals. Our neighbor's goats are here, their dog. We've got llamas. We have goats. So everyone just sort of has their sectioned area. And we take the horses out, we walk them, we feed them. And then we try to keep in communication with surrounding areas to see, are we going to be able to possibly go home at some point? We're - everyone's just sitting on pins and needles, to be perfectly honest.

SIMON: Christy Gentry at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, Calif. Thank you so much.

GENTRY: You're welcome. Thank you.

SIMON: And tomorrow on WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY, after wildfires, earthquakes, hurricanes, what's the best way to help? A close look at charities and where your donations go. That's tomorrow morning on WEEKEND SUNDAY. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.