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Tales of Heroism From the 2015 California Wildfire: When Horse Trailers Save Lives

Last updated November 29, 2023 by Brad Heath

In September of 2015, a terrifying wildfire devoured the landscape in Lake County, California causing chaos and destruction.  We spoke with Kate Sullivan of Sonoma Action For Equine Rescue (SAFER) who shared her tale of how SAFER volunteers and residents came together to help distribute feed and supplies to surviving cattle, horses, sheep and even camels in desperate need.  Her organization raised an astounding $280,000 mostly in non-cash feed and supplies.  These donations were able to provide lifesaving assistance to farm owners who had literally lost it all.

The First Days of The Fire

On September 12, 2015, Kate Sullivan was driving back from a horse auction out in the Sacramento Valley feeling satisfied with her day’s work. She had been able to rescue six lucky horses from the grips of the kill buyers and was now transporting them home to Santa Rosa.  These horses were going to be rehabilitated and adopted out to loving homes.  As Kate was traveling along the highway that evening, she had no idea that a dangerous fire was starting just miles away

wildfire pathIn the dry countryside of California, wild fires are not uncommon in the late summer.  In fact, two other fires had already emerged that season, but were dealt with quickly by the authorities.  Still, this fire was different.  It was bigger, faster, and more stubborn in its intent to wreak havoc on the landscape.

By its end, it would take four human lives, injure four firefighters, and cover an astounding 76,000 acres.  Its destruction would include 1,281 family homes, 27 multi-family houses, 66 commercial structures, and 581 minor structures across the hilly and densely populated county.

In the coming weeks, Kate and SAFER volunteers would organize disaster relief for the victims and their beloved animals.  She later shared, “No one knew how big this fire was going to be.  It was eventually declared  a national disaster.  A lot of heroic stories evolved about people saving their animals.”

Among the 581 “other minor structures” that were destroyed were many hay barns fully stocked with winter hay.  The fire greedily engulfed each of these buildings and progressed on its way, leaving stranded animals behind.  “I’m sure when the fire hit a hay barn, it was a huge detonation!” Kate explained.

The loss of home and barns is never easy to accept, but even harder to replace in the hearts and minds of the fleeing victims would be the animals that hay was supposed to feed.  Folks streamed out of the area, sometimes with only five minutes to flee.  Many heartbreaking decisions had to be made.

One woman had to choose which three of her six horses she would bring since that was all that would fit in her horse trailer. The entire concept of horse trailers took on a new and grim reality for many fleeing families.  People traveled with blazing flames on either side of the road.  Luckily, hundreds of horses and many other large animals made it out into emergency receiving areas.

Sadly, many animals also lost their lives.


Getting the Relief Work Started

During this terrifying time, many heroic stories emerged of horse owners risking their lives to save their animals.

One such story belongs to Stormis Shores and her friend who went into the fire zone after some horses that belonged to their friend.  A firefighter was able to help them reach the farm where the animals were stranded.  From there, they rode two of the horses bareback, led two others, and had a foal trailing behind. They rode about four miles with fire-ridden land on either side of them, but they made it out.

wildfire in california

Two young women risked their lives by traveling into the fire zone to rescue five horses.

Just one day after the start of the fire, Kate Sullivan began work organizing resources for the victims. SAFER already maintained a hay donation program through the local Rainbow Ag Feed Store in Kelseyville, CA.  With this program, people are able to donate money to SAFER that is automatically used to purchase feed and supplies stored at the feed store for future use.  Normally, this hay goes to local residents in need, so it was a simple matter to transfer the donations to fire relief.

“Our program has been very well received,” Kate shared.  “We always have some resources, so it helped us respond to the fire.”

Next, Kate sent out a SAFER eNewsletter to her network asking for donations of hay, feed, and other horse barn equipment.  It wasn’t long until help started pouring in from the surrounding communities.  A call came in from a farm in Nevada who was able to send an entire semi truck filled with hay for the fire relief efforts!

Her next challenge was to establish a base of operation and storage for the collected goods.  Luckily, Brenna Sullivan, the Lake County Farm Bureau Director was able to secure a pear shed donated by the Adobe Packing Company for the SAFER Donations.

hay donation during wildfire 2015

The supplies rolled in by the truck-full including this load of hay donated by the ASPCA.

By Monday September 14, the semi-truck full of hay arrived followed by a second full semi-truck full of Purina Equine Senior feed donated to the Rainbow Ag feed store.

But Kate wasn’t done yet!  She submitted an Emergency Grant request to the ASPCA, which was granted just three days later. ANOTHER semi-truck of hay rolled in!

In the following days, many more semi-trucks would be arriving with donations from the Sacramento Valley.  Just as fast, the supplies were being loaded onto trailers and trucks to feed evacuees at holding facilities. It was chaos, but through SAFER’s hard work, it was becoming organized chaos.

Still, nobody knew when the fire would be contained.  It continued spreading, threatening the town of Clearlake.

Stories of Terror and Heroism

It took a great deal of manpower to unload all of those trucks, organize the goods, and meet with local residents coming in desperate for supplies.

The woman in charge of taking in and processing applications was Carleene Cady, a SAFER Board member and local horsewoman.  Carleene was also a retired ER Nurse Manager who was extremely well suited to this stressful task.  She met people daily in the days and months that followed at the SAFER Depot to discuss needs, disperse goods, and collect a hundred stories of luck, loss and the outpouring of loving care that followed the destruction.

She managed money donations sent from as far away as Hawaii and Vermont, dispensed gift certificates to Kelseyville Lumber, and spoke with horse groups in Fort Bragg and Marin who called to assist.  Some of the most needed items were simple things: fencing, salt blocks, saddles, bridles, tack, manure rakes, boots, and buckets.  These items all showed up at the depot for the survivors to take home.

Carleene also worked with the North American Trail Ride Conference (NATRC) group who sent many donations of tack and equipment to the depot. She was also able to organize the delivery of water to isolated horses with empty tanks and arrange for four semi-trucks of SAFER hay to be sent out to the victims of the concurrent Butte fire in central California.

carleen cady and charlie

Carleene Cady, aided by Charlie from Adobe Packing, dispenses feed and supplies at the SAFER Fire Relief Depot.   She heard so many stories of loss and miraculous survival.

With each passing day, the stories of heroism continued to roll in and workers like Carleene and Kate collected the stories.

Carleene heard the tale of Janie Ponti who headed into the fire zone with a four-horse trailer in search of people who may need their help.  Janie was on a back road in the middle of the fire when she saw a slow moving truck and trailer. Inside the trailer were three horses with six other horses tied to the outside of the trailer on either side.  The caravan was slowly making its way as fast as the horses could walk.

The owners clearly were unable to choose which horses to leave behind and were risking their lives on the chance that they might rescue them all.   In a flash, Janie and the haulers were taking action.

Somehow, even with an "unloadable" mustang, they were able to get all six full-size horses into that four-horse trailer, even with dividers. All survived, both people and horses, thanks to Jonie!

wildfire donations

The SAFER depot gathered donated items for the victims. Here, fire survivor Kit Huston was thrilled to find saddle pack bags donated by someone from Shore Line Riders.

Another story trickled in starring some unlikely creatures… camels!   Stewart Camps manages a retreat called Sacred Camel Gardens near Middletown, CA.  When he told to evacuate the fire zone, he refused to leave his nineteen beloved camels behind.

He took action by clearing out as much land as possible from any sort of combustible material.  He then gathered the camel herd and huddled in the middle while the fire raged overhead. The scared camels could easily have panicked and fled if he had not been there with them, but he was able to keep them calm and together.  Some of the camels received minor burns and were later treated by a vet, but ALL survived!

Stewart Camps

Stewart Camps picks up some feed for his camels after surviving the fire huddled in a field.

Carleene shared another story of Kathy Madsen.  Kathy was traveling abroad when the fire went through so she was not able to return in time to evacuate her horses. She and her husband lost their house, barn, truck, trailer and more.

They lost everything – everything except their two horses, one very old mare and one younger gelding. The mare was her very first riding horse who she had cared for tenderly for many years.  The horses were in a bare pasture that did not burn and were rescued by a good friend.

When the couple were able to return to their devastated property it was shocking.  She was eventually able to visit her horses and put her arms around the mare’s neck.  With tears wetting the mare’s coat she softly cried, “I thought I would never see you again.”


kathy madsen

Kathy Madsen and Pam Respini pick up hay and pellets for her two horses that were able to survive in a barren pasture as the fire passed around them.  All else on the property burned - houses and barns.

It took a full 25 days before the fire was finally declared 100% contained on October 6, 2015.  It was a long and tense time with many people not knowing if their animals had survived.  Five months later, cats are still being found and returned to their incredulous and happy families.

The Lake County fires in California tested the grit and determination of horse owners to the very limits.  Luckily, volunteers like the SAFER staff, Rainbow Ag Feed Store, Animal Control volunteers, and other animal organizations were able to help save the lives of thousands of animals.

Kate stressed one very important lesson learned from this experience.  “So many people have learned the hardest way of all that having an evacuation plan and the right equipment is critical to large animal care,” she said.

“Without the countless horse trailers that immediately made their way into the fire zone and out again, the losses would have been much greater. Keep your trailer ready to go even if you do not use it much.  Try to make sure all your horses will load.  It may save their lives.”

Helen Owen

Helen Owen lost house, barns, and her arena fencing, but all her horses survived! Helen owns A1 Horse Ranch and has taught generations of Lake County kids to ride, do gymkhana, and rodeo. She got lots of handy stuff as well as hay and feed. The show must go on!!

We can end with one final (and happy) detail.

Remember in the very beginning of this tale how Kate had just rescued six horses from the kill pens?  She shared some happy news, “In the meantime, all the auction horses got vetted, trimmed and evaluated - and adopted!!  All during the first seven weeks of the fire!   What an incredibly lucky thing!”

SAFER adopted horse

Lucky Louie, renamed Joaquin, goes home with Stephanie Holdenreid.  He was an abused and discarded mustang destined for slaughter.  Kate shared, “It has touched us deeply to see a transformation in him and we are reminded why we do all this. The world has a tiny bit more hope and trust because Louie decides to let a human try again. He is doing very well.”

We would like to send out a special thanks to Kate Sullivan who helped write this article.


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