Eerie fairgrounds shelter farm owners fleeing fires

When the call came to evacuate her home, Holly Howell had more than just herself to think about.

The retired police officer had to take her menagerie with her – an iguana, a blind chicken, barn cats and llamas among the dozens of animals on her small farm. She grabbed them all as the fire closed in.

Holly is now holed up in a caravan on the Oregon state fairground near Salem, her flock among the 1,400 animals currently temporarily housed in the barns, stables and outbuildings.

Vets and volunteers shuttle around in the eerie, smoky landscape as more animals arrive in need of shelter. Search and rescue teams are now out looking for those injured and left behind.

Thousands of people near Salem, Oregon, have no idea if their homes will still be standing when they return
Image:Thousands of people near Salem, Oregon, have no idea if their homes will still be standing when they return

The fairgrounds should have been hosting livestock shows now but they were cancelled because of the coronavirus. It has created space for the animal evacuees who, to many, feel like part of their families.

The last few days, Holly says, have “regained my faith in humanity”. But difficult times are ahead.

“The problem now is that we don’t know how many houses are lost because people are not able to get back into their communities.

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“It is tough because how do you know how to deal with it?”

In the stables, Rebecca Kuenzi and Dani Davis are among dozens of owners trying to settle their horses into new accommodation.

“The morning we had to evacuate I had actually offered our house for people to bring their horses to because we thought we were in the safe zone,” said Rebecca.

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“So we had eight extra horses in the morning and by the afternoon we all had leave, with all of their horses and all of ours as well.

“We were very scared. We thought our whole town was going to be gone.

In fact it narrowly escaped the flames.

Dani said: “Today I have hope that I might still have a house in a few days, with smoke damage, but I’ll still have a house.”

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Many of those camped out at the fairgrounds have friends and neighbours who have lost everything in the fire. It has put all of their experiences into perspective.

Mindy Bales, mucking out pigs with her three sons, said: “Everyone just wants to do anything they can to help.”

There is a recognition here that these unprecedented fires have changed the mood in these rural communities, where wildfires have been such a rarity.

It is a feeling that, in all this loss, nothing will be quite the same ever again.

Mark Gibson

Graduates in Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 1990. Move to Los Angeles California in 2004. Specialized in Internet journalism.

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