The Los Alamos, N.M., wildfire that blazed during most of May not only ravaged the homes of residents, but also affected the lives of many horses.

The fire, which was deliberately set May 4 by the U.S. Park service, grew out of control and forced the evacuation of about 20,000 people from Los Alamos. The fire was expected to be contained by May 24, and had already consumed more than 47,650 acres and 235 structures.

When the fires began to encroach upon farms, ranches, and residential areas of Los Alamos and nearby White Rock, authorities called for a voluntary evacuation. Under voluntary evacuation, citizens are permitted to move their animals. Once evacuation is made mandatory, animals must be removed and rescued by authorities-which in the case of the "Cerro Grande" fire meant the sheriff's posse.

According to Maggie Meadows-Blackburn, a volunteer who helped with the rescued horses, some people did not believe that the fires would be a threat and did not plan for transport of their horses. Last-minute evacuations prompted some people simply to open their barns and enclosures and allow horses to escape the fires themselves. Many horses remained in their pens rather than fleeing. Horses were safe from the flames in many cases, but not safe from smoke inhalation.

Amidst the smoke, a volunteer group came together and helped the sheriff's posse remove nearly 90 horses from Los Alamos and White Rock. "Without the Sheriff's posse, the owners would not have been able to get through the roadblocks," explained Eldon Reyer, president of the Northern New Mexico Horsemen's Association. Reyer's group owns a portion of the show grounds at The Horseman's Arena in Santa Fe, where he orchestrated the volunteer effort and supplied housing for rescued horses.

"The animal shelter was assigned the responsibility of the horses when (the authorities) decided to evacuate, and they were asking us for space," he said. "I was put on standby around 10 pm (on May 11), and was called for evacuation at 1 am (on May 12)."

The evacuation of the horses took until eight that morning. According to Reyer, all horses involved in the Los Alamos rescue were accounted for, although one horse had to be left behind in the corrals when he could not be coaxed onto the rescue trailer. Reyer is unsure of what became of that animal.

Sixty-two horses were brought onto the show grounds in the first shipment, and nearly 30 more came to the grounds later. Horses were given temporary homes at seven other farms as well.

Reyer recalled one individual who brought her own horses down away from the rapidly spreading flames to be kept at the show grounds. "She pulled in with her horses and as her last horse was being unloaded, her cellular phone rang, and she found out her house was burning," he said. The woman collapsed with the shock of the news. Reyer and volunteers rushed her off for medical assistance, and told her not worry about her horses, just to care for her family.

"Our objective was to relieve (the owners) of that responsibility (of the horses). That's a terrible cloud to have hanging over you," he said.

Through the media, the New Mexico Horse Council, and other avenues, the rescue group was able to gather enough feed and supplies to care for the horses. More than 75 volunteers came to the shelter facility and signed up to care for the horses around the clock. "We did it for 16 days, three times a day. It was really so amazing, because we had six semi loads of donations delivered." Hay, feeds, vitamins, and treats were among the donated items. "It was really spectacular," added Meadows-Blackburn.

In all, 90 horses were held at The Horseman's Arena until owners were able to recover their animals. Thirty pregnant mares were kept on one side of the grounds, separate from the other animals. Two foals were born during the horses' stay at the shelter.

Meadows-Blackburn and a brand inspector were able to catalog all horses and helped match them with their owners who came desperately searching for their animals.

"The reunions are what made it the best effort of all," said Meadows-Blackburn. She adopted one of the horses after an owner was unable to care for the animal due to property losses. The last of the horses was picked up on May 24. Horses had nicks, cuts, and scrapes from their respective adventures, but all healed nicely.

"I'm so proud of the horse community," said Reyer. "And it wasn't just horse people. We got organized fast because we're a community unto ourselves. All you have to do is pick up the phone, and people will help. Even though (victims) know they lost their homes, their animals were taken care of, and that helped them a lot."

There were 10 known horse fatalities as a result of the New Mexico fires. Those were in areas away from Los Alamos. Those horses were left padlocked in a barn, and firefighters were unable to break the horses out before the flames engulfed the structure.

About the Author

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief, received a B.A. in Journalism and Equestrian Studies from Averett College in Danville, Virginia. A Pony Club and 4-H graduate, her background is in eventing, and she is schooling her recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, toward a career in that discipline. She also enjoys traveling, photography, cycling, and cooking in her free time.

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