Last of large animals evacuated during Sonoma County fires go home

Volunteer Aimee Kilmer cleans the stalls of horses rescued from the fires at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on Sunday, October 22, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California . (BETH SCHLANKER/The Press Democrat)


After two weeks of caring for panicked horses, cattle and sheep evacuated from farms and ranches all over Sonoma County during recent wildfires, tired but gratified volunteers finally got a break Sunday morning.

Nearly all the animals already had been transported back to their homes, or temporary homes, as some of the 20 to 30 remaining volunteers, including several who started the spontaneous large animal rescue effort two weeks ago as fires raged through the county, chatted outside the Sonoma County Fairgrounds’ animal barns, vowing to keep in touch.

“It’s a lovely story of bonding,” said Jesse Barber, 38, a volunteer with the Equine Assistance Project in Novato, who arrived at the fairgrounds to help in the early hours of Oct. 9. “I feel like I’ve made some lifelong friends.”

The volunteer animal care efforts sprang up around the fairgrounds’ Gate 7, off Ashton Avenue in Santa Rosa, which leads to the fairgrounds’ barns for racehorses and exhibit animals, typically empty in the off-season.

Almost immediately donations of hay, blankets, pitchforks and other supplies came streaming in from feed and hardware stores and other businesses.

“We have had a tremendous outpouring of donations, and volunteers have working 12 hours a day with the animals, without any break,” said Becky Bartling, chief executive officer of the Sonoma County Fair.

During the days following the initial outbreak of fires, the number of volunteers at the fairgrounds swelled to as many as 300. Some stayed and slept at the fairgrounds, caring for the estimated 400 horses, goats, donkeys, rabbits and birds.

“We had a real Noah’s ark,” said Tricia “T” Anderson, 39, Rohnert Park, who came to the fairgrounds Oct. 9 when she heard about the fires.

“The volunteers here the first morning were just citizens who care about animals in this county,” Anderson said. “It was a bunch of people who just got together at the fairgrounds through phone calls and social media.”

Veterinarian Amber Bowen, one of several volunteer vets who participated in the animal rescue efforts, reported three horses died of colic after being evacuated to the fairgrounds, probably induced by panic as they were loaded on trailers during the fires.

“The horses had a lot of anxiety and stress. They couldn’t handle it well,” Bowen said. “Just getting them into the trailers was traumatic. One of the horses had never been in a trailer before.”

Several ewes gave birth at the fairgrounds, she said.

On Oct. 14, Bartling temporarily hired Jim Burns, barn and livestock manager at the Alameda County Fairgrounds, to oversee the care of the animals at the fairgrounds.

The effort also got support from the Sonoma County Horse Council, Sonoma County Animal Control, California Veterinarians Medical Association, UC Davis and other organizations.

You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or On Twitter @danarts.