Llamas, geese, pigs and other livestock among evacuees in wildfire shelters as farmers battle to save livelihood

Hundreds of farm animals evacuated to Salem (Andrew Buncombe)
Hundreds of farm animals evacuated to Salem (Andrew Buncombe)

As flames approached Francisco Maldonado’s homestead high in the hills, there was one thing of which he was certain: he could not leave behind his uncle’s goats.

His family had laboured long, hard years to make them a going concern, and he could not lose them. They threw them in the back of a Dodge truck with a canopy, and drove them to Salem. “We didn’t have a lot of time,” he said. “We had to get on with getting going.”

This week, the 41-year-old was taking care of the 23 animals in a series of pens in Salem, having rescued the animals but lost his property to the wildfire that tore through the Santiam Valley.

As he set about his work, cutting pieces of apple with a knife and feeding them to the goats, the barn was filled with the sound of cows and sheep, of pigs and llamas. A short walk away were stables half full of horses, while in another room – in which the air particularly pungent – were hundreds of chickens, geese and ducks.

It is well known that when people are forced to evacuate from disasters they often prioritise the safety of their pets above their own. Yet when the community being evacuated is a rural, farming community, officials also have to find room for their farm animals as well.

Francisco Maldonado escaped with 23 goats from North ForkAndrew Buncombe
Francisco Maldonado escaped with 23 goats from North ForkAndrew Buncombe

At the Oregon State Fair Exposition Centre in Salem officials from Marion County said they were providing shelter for more than 650 farm animals people had brought with them. That number had decreased as more people had been able to return to their homes and farms, said Emily DuPlessis-Enders, a spokesperson for Salem City Council.

She said among the most unusual pets people had brought with them was a ferret.

In the pens close to Mr Maldonado’s goats were inquisitive-looking llamas, heads up and alert, some milk cows, and some steers. There were also lots of pigs, most of amply built and sitting doing very little.

Gary and Dana Parks, from Coltan, near Portland, arrived at the shelter when a different fire system, the Riverside Fire, threatened their home. They made use of three vehicles – a horse trailer, a truck and an SUV – to transport 38 goats, and more than half-a-dozen dogs, one of which had given birth to puppies since they arrived.

Mr Parks, 57 whose main job is as a commercial baker, said they left Coltan fearing the worst. As it was, they had been able to return to collect some personal items – he pulled out his cellphone show a video of red skies and falling ash around their house – but that it had survived.

He praised residents of Coltan who organised to try and contain the fires until professional firefighters arrived. “Everybody just pulled together.”

Sue Dickinson, 69, was in the stables, the air sweet with new grass and hay, and she was taking care of two horses, Hershey and Holly. Holly was a mustang from the Bend area, while Hershey was a Missouri Fox Trotter. Both were “15 or 16” years old.

She had evacuated with the horses and two dogs on the evening of September 7, Labour Day, from Mill City, one of the towns in the Santiam Valley where many properties were destroyed. Unlike many others, Ms Dickinson’s home had survived the fire. Yet it was unclear when she could return. “It’s still a Level 3, so I don’t know,” she said of the evacuation order still in place for several towns, wreck and still threatened by the Big Beachie Fire.

The animals, and the struggle their owners to rescue them, appears to have impacted many, not least the volunteers giving up their time to care for them.

Heidi Mann, a resident of Mill City, who saved her family but who lost her home to the flames, said one of the most emotional moments of their dramatic escape, was when she pulled up at junction and heard the sound of geese.

“It was hell on earth. I mean, it was just chaos and darkness and fire, and all these people, frantic, everywhere,” she said by phone, her voice breaking.

“We pulled into the gas station and were trying to call the Red Cross. And it was the craziest thing, because all of a sudden you hear these geese, just like a bunch of geese right next to us. And we looked around and there was a car that was full. Someone was just trying to save their animals. I realised how everyone was just trying to escape, and get what they could, and their animals and stuff.”

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