MORE THAN TWO-BY-TWO
California Wildfire Turns High School Into Noah’s Ark for Farm Animals
Students tend to sheep, pigs, and horses who escaped the inferno eating through northern California, while farmers fight the fire engulfing their own land.
SONOMA VALLEY, California—Barbara Parsons was nearly in tears as she waited Wednesday evening in the parking lot of Sonoma Valley High School for her husband Gilman to return. Hours earlier he left on foot past police roadblocks to check on their ranch in the nearby foothills, where the couple had been forced to leave behind 60 sheep.
Gilman was going to open the gates of the ranch to give the animals a chance to survive an inferno that has incinerated more than 3,500 structures and killed at least 29 people since Monday.
The Parsons had first hurriedly evacuated themselves and their pack of purebred border collies into a van in the early hours of Monday morning as the fire approached with alarming speed, whipped by hurricane-strength 75 mph winds.
“The flames followed us as we came down Lovall Valley Road,” Parsons said. “There was a horrible conflagration of fires. It was amazing, everything went up so quickly.”
The Parsons returned later with trailers for their flock of 60 sheep—mostly Sheltands and a few Babydoll Softdowns—a breed known for grazing gently enough to keep down weeds that grow beneath vineyards, without harming the vines.
“We waited for hours with trailers each day, but we couldn’t get up there,” Parsons said. “If you live anywhere on the high ridges, they wouldn’t let you back in to pull your livestock.”
Though Sonoma and nearby Napa Counties are known for their wineries, ranching, dairy, and poultry farms also make up a significant portion of the agricultural economy. In Sonoma, there are over 30,000 dairy cows, 46,000 sheep and lambs, and 2.2 million chickens, bringing in about $178 million annually, according to the 2016 Sonoma County Crop Report. Over the past few days, farmers in the danger zone, which keeps expanding, have been frantically enlisting the help of friends with extra trailers to move their animals, to ranches, to the fairground, and to places like the stables behind Sonoma Valley High School.
“My son was with me last night and he said, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here,’” said Deborah Stroski, who managed to get her four geese and five chickens to the high school before evacuating.
The livestock are being tended by volunteers like Alissa Orr, a senior at the high school who lives down the street and comes by a few times a day to make sure they have enough food, water, and clean hay for bedding.
Founder of Charlie’s Acres farm animal sanctuary, Tracy Vogt was able to get all of her animals to another sanctuary south of San Francisco, before the fire hit her property.
“Some of the structures are burned, the ground is scorched,” Vogt said, “but I consider myself lucky. A lot of my neighbors have it worse.”
Vogt started a GoFundMe that attracted over $5,000 in donations, which she used to buy feed and supplies for refugee animals throughout the area. She’d spent the day distributing the supplies and was now using the empty truck to haul a few more animals out of Sonoma, away from danger.
“I’ve got your pig, Porky,” Vogt said into her cellphone, to the pot-belly pig’s owner. “Sonoma is being evacuated, so we’re taking him to Half Moon Bay.”
Ten minutes down the road, on Highway 121, the Mulas Dairy, one of the leading dairies in the region, was still fully operational, with hundreds of cows hooked up to milk machines. It was business as usual except that all of the men in the family-owned dairy are out fighting the fire, said Denise Mulas. “We haven’t seen them for three days,” Mulas said. Her husband and his brother serve as the volunteer fire department’s chief and assistant chief.
Not expecting the fire to reach them, the family offered up their land to friends who had to evacuate, and Wednesday evening those friends started arriving.
Kris Lucenti showed up with her three kids and a trailer after the police drove up her street with a loudspeaker telling everyone to get out. As she was locking up, she saw three looters ride by on bikes with backpacks and no masks. A moment later a sheriff’s cruiser went down the street after them.
“Someone called it in and they were running,” Lucenti said.
Another friend Mary Benziger arrived from Glen Ellen, where mandatory evacuations were in effect. She was worried because her husband had stayed behind to install a pump to move water from their pool into sprinklers around the property.
By Wednesday, Lynda Cronin had been at the Sonoma Marin fairgrounds in Petaluma for two days straight, tending to her friends’ horses, as they had tended to hers in the first days of the fire, before she had even known that her horse was in danger.
Her eyes red from smoke and from sleeping in her car with her cats for two days, she took feed over to one of the horses. A man asked if he should run interference as she crossed the pen, but she waved him off. “I’ve already established myself as the dominant mare.”
A team of horse rescuers had moved her chocolate chestnut horse from the Jackalope stable where she usually boards it. The most important thing when moving a horse, Cronin said, is to stay calm.
“If you lose it, they’ll lose it too,” she said. She appreciated that her horse had been looked after.
“Some things you can’t do by yourself,” she said.
On Monday, as the flames moved close to her dairy sheep farm, Carleen Weirauch posted to Facebook: “Lord please keep my animals safe.”
But unlike others who were cut off from their properties, Weirauch was able to move her 60 sheep to another ranch on the coast, with the help of friends.
“They had an extra trailer and a couple of trucks to assist us. They have also been offering their truck and trailer to move anyone’s animals,” Weirauch said via Facebook messenger. “I think they moved a donkey, a horse and a pig this evening,” She returned to her farm to “prepare for the worst, if the fire demon creeps over the mountain again.”
Concerned about the embers that can travel on the wind and smolder, she cleared dry leaves and loose branches, soaked compost piles, rooftops, exteriors of the dairy, perimeter trees, and the driveway.
Wednesday evening Weirauch said she was feeling “alert, on-guard, nervous, anxious and tired.” And she was trying not to think about money. “This week all of our farm routine, sales, production, etc have come to a halt to focus on the fire/ smoke threat.”
She deeply appreciates the help she’s gotten, and says it’s just part of the farming culture.
“Farmers are in the habit of sharing resources. We take the destruction of land, anyone’s land, very seriously. The land IS our business.”