Group rescues animals from California wildfires

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OUT OF HARM’S WAY Sisters Amber Stites (left) and Lisa Jewett are part of a team that rescued horses and other animals throughout the state that were threatened by wildfires. Photo: Erik Chalhoub

In 2012, Lisa Jewett watched as a fire tore through her Hollister home, burning everything she owned to ashes.

She was fortunate to get her daughter and horses to safety. But with the nightgown she was wearing her only surviving possession, Jewett was homeless for a year, relying on the generosity of friends and family to get her through the difficult time.

As countless others across the state are losing their homes from fires caused by a freak lightning storm, Jewett can understand the pain they are going through. 

With the fires racing through rural areas, it’s not only people that have to evacuate, but their animals as well. Coupled with the overwhelming stress of evacuating is the fact that many owners might not have the resources to move large groups of their animals in a timely manner.

Jewett, a South County native who now lives in Stockton, sprang into action soon after the lightning complex hit on Aug. 16.

“I understand what it’s like,” she said. “The feelings as I watched the fire, to watch your life burn. That’s why I do what I do today.”

With her sister Amber Stites, who provides horseback riding lessons through the nonprofit Amber’s Angels in San Martin, the two joined forces with Tassahia Williamson from Saddle Up Horse Training of Brentwood and Serena Heppes from Under the Son Horsemanship. The result was a team with members from all walks of life, and more than 20 trailers that trekked from La Honda to Gonzales and everywhere in between, evacuating more than 500 horses, cows, pigs and other animals.

TRANSPORT TO SAFETY A brigade of trucks and trailers depart to evacuate animals from California wildfires. Submitted photo

Thorson’s Arena in San Martin opened up its gates to the evacuees, where the animals stayed and waited until they could return home.

The hardest part, Jewett said, was deciding where to go first, as the team was receiving calls from frightened livestock owners in various corners of the state. They decided to segment their team by region to cover as much ground as possible.

Jewett recalls going beyond the fire lines in the Santa Cruz Mountains early one morning, wondering if the heat from the still-smoldering brush alongside the road would melt the tires of their trucks and trailers. Then there was the evacuation of all pregnant cattle, two of which gave birth while being transported in the trailer.

Jewett estimates that over a six-day period, the team got roughly 14 hours of sleep total, all of them sleeping in their trucks.

Many left their homes with just the clothes on their back, not thinking about food or other supplies they might need for an extended period away, she said.

“It was boots on the ground running,” Stites said.

Their generosity was met in kind. My Pizza in Morgan Hill and Straw Hat Pizza in Gilroy donated pizza to the hungry rescuers. Among other donations, K9 for Kids donated carriers for the smaller animals, Diamond Bar in Ceres provided material for animal pens, and Wall of Heroes donated $3,000 worth of feed.

The group’s mission doesn’t stop when the final flames are doused, Jewett said. It is currently fundraising to provide feed and other supplies for the animals, as well as housing people who have had their homes destroyed.

“We all stepped out of our own lives to do this,” she said. “In our hearts this is what we knew we wanted to do.”

To donate funds to the group’s efforts, visit tinyurl.com/y6429bpn.

A group of people have been working daily to evacuate horses and other animals from California wildfires. Photo: Erik Chalhoub