As People Flee Oregon's Eagle Creek Fire, Rescuers Return For Frightened Animals

Sep 7, 2017
Originally published on September 11, 2017 4:57 pm

The Eagle Creek Fire raced through the Columbia River Gorge, forcing more than 500 homes and farms to evacuate.

Pushed by eastern winds, the fire moved fast, growing to more than 10,000 acres Monday and emptying communities from Cascade Locks to Corbett.

But as the winds eased Tuesday morning, landowners and a team of volunteers returned to the evacuated areas to help rescue the horses and cattle people had to leave behind in the middle of the night.

At a farm off Littlepage Road on the eastern edge of Corbett, a volunteer with Sound Equine Options loaded a big brown horse named Olivia into a trailer. Olivia was nervous but walked right in.

The next horse, Buck, lived up to his name. His eyes rolled back, his nostrils flared and he wouldn't stay in the trailer.

Steven Hiatt, 49, owns the horses being loaded up for evacuation. He watched nervously behind an iron gate as mix of friends and volunteers urged the animals into waiting trailers.

“Kind of scary, just for everybody’s safety," Hiatt said. "I can see they’re really freaked out, after last night, because yesterday was not a good night up here.”

Hiatt's 50-acre farm is now under a mandatory evacuation order. He said the smoke got thicker and thicker Monday night. After a day in the stuff, he felt like he could hardly breathe or see.

“From here to that truck you could barely see the color last night," he said. "That’s pretty bad.”

Around 4:30 a.m. Tuesday, Hiatt filled a trailer and a truck with everything he could carry. Clothes, food, water, some pictures and knickknacks. He got his mother, his wife and his roommates out.

He managed to corral his dogs and five angry cats. But the middle-of-the-night exodus proved too difficult for him to get the horses and cattle, too.

“They weren’t top priority at that time; your human body is,” Hiatt said.

Hours later, crews from a multi-agency animal rescue team moved into the Corbett area to help people save their livestock and pets.

It’s a big job. The fire is burning in an area that’s home to many stables, farms and ranches.

“We’re getting cattle, llamas, alpacas, pigs, horses, goats,” said Kim Mosiman, who is coordinating the efforts in Corbett on behalf of Sound Equine Options.

Mosiman said she had been working for 24 hours without a break. Her crews, she estimated, had rescued about 80 animals by mid-morning Tuesday.

Red Cross shelters have been set up for human evacuees, though most people leaving Corbett said they’re staying with family or friends.

Volunteers with trailers are taking the animals to county fairgrounds, veterinary offices and private stables that have offered space.

Mosiman had set up a post at Corbett Middle School to direct the rescue efforts. She said organizers are still looking for trailers and stables that can help with the effort.

“I’ve got another animal control here, pulling in now. We’ve got probably three or four counties that are helping, as well as lots of our volunteers,” she said.

Mosiman said her team was making progress, but it’s hard to keep pace with a fire that traveled 12 miles and crossed the Columbia River in a single night. By Tuesday afternoon, parts of Troutdale — on the Portland metro area's far east end — were under a Level 1 "get ready" evacuation notice.

Back at the farm on Littlepage Road, the volunteers finally wrangled the horses into a trailer. But Hiatt’s cattle had to wait for another trailer to arrive and for volunteers to return. Rescuers hope to come back for them later.

Hiatt became choked up as he thought of leaving his place for a second time.

“This was my stepdad’s place. And I don’t want to see it go," he said, struggling to hold back tears. "He owned it for 50 years, and I’ve worked it for the last four after he died. "I want to come back to it.”

Hiatt said he still has hope the property will survive the fire. But then he pointed to the east.

All that, he said, is gone.

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