Norris Penrose Event Center, which hosts the annual Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo, is one of many facilities temporarily housing horses and other animals displaced by this week’s massive Black Forest Fire in Colorado.
In a bit of déjà vu, the staff of the Colorado Springs-based equestrian center is once again looking after horses as it did in 2012 when the Waldo Canyon conflagration raged not far from where the current fire is burning.
"We still have a large supply of tools, like wheelbarrows, from last year, which we just kept here under lock and key for a situation like this,” said Johnny Walker, general manager for the Norris Penrose Event Center.
Even though Walker has taken in 140 horses this year as opposed to 350 last year, the Center is already at capacity. There already were 200 horses on site for a horse show and the Center’s boarding facility had another 68 horses at the time the fire broke out.
Last year, on June 26, the Waldo Canyon Fire burned through a Colorado Springs neighborhood and destroyed 346 homes and displaced people and their pets on its way to becoming the costliest fire in Colorado history—one with a price tag of more than $352 million.
Now that dubious distinction belongs to the Black Forest Fire.
Within eyeshot of mountainsides burned in 2012, the Black Forest Fire, so far, has blackened more than 15,700 acres, killed at least two people, destroyed at least 360 homes and damaged another 14. Thousands of people, horses, cows, alpacas, goats, chickens, dogs, cats and small animals have been evacuated since the fire started on June 11.
Horses are one of the primary reasons people buy or build on the forested, multi-acre lots in the Black Forest area in the first place.
"Last year the fire mostly burned in a residential area, but this year the fire is in a place where most people have animals,” Walker said. "From the standpoint of animals and the geography, this one definitely is worse.”
Shelter from the FirestormThe Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region (HSPPR) opened a temporary shelter for people and their pets in response to the out-of-control fire, which was 5 percent contained on June 13.
"We set up a temporary shelter at the Palmer Ridge High School [in Monument, Colo.] for people staying with their animals,” said Gretchen Pressley, a communications specialist with the Humane Society. "Right now we have about 80 animals, including cats, dogs and small animals like gerbils, rabbits, chinchillas and guinea pigs.”
Additionally, the HSPPR last Tuesday began accepting animal drop-offs by people being evacuated because of the fire at its Abbot Lane shelter.
The Dumb Friends League of Denver and All Breed Rescue of Colorado Springs took all of the HSPPR’s adoptable dogs to free up room for evacuated animals, Pressley reported.
Besides the 58 dogs taken in, there are 56 cats in temporary crates in the facility’s basement and turtles, snakes and lots of birds, such as quails and ducks.
"We have just over 200 animals from the fire,” Pressley said. "We have two staff vets and lots of volunteers who are coming in and walking the dogs, feeding the animals and seeing that everyone is doing OK.”
Because most of the animals were dropped off by their owners, they arrived in good health.
The Horse Life
The situation is a bit more chaotic at the Norris Center. In addition to the horses, Walker, his staff and volunteers are caring for 20 goats and 20 chickens, and Walker said that every animal brought in from the fire area has its own story.
"Some of the animals were dropped off pre-evacuation by their owners,” he said, "while others were turned loose just ahead of the flames and picked up by volunteers hauling our rigs and by others using their own rigs to deliver animals.”
One volunteer especially is a godsend for Walker. Brittany Factor, DVM, a Colorado Springs equine veterinarian, has brought a sense of calm to an otherwise stressful situation since animals began arriving at the center.
"She’s been checking animals as they come in,” Walker said.
Dr. Factor was boarding some of her own horses at the Norris Center when the fire broke out.
"She even wrote the [quarantine] protocols to keep all of the animals safe,” Walker added.
Factor’s write-up called for different quarantine zones "to make sure show animals aren’t mixed in with evacuation horses and those in the boarding barn facility do not mix with either,” Walker said. "The first night I stayed up 24 hours.”
While some horses have returned home, some, Walker believes, will be under his watchful eye indefinitely.
For now, people like Walker and Factor will keep working long hours. Donations in food and supplies will keep "coming from all over” to provide for the needs of animals until the fire’s last ember is out,” Walker said. "I’m running on pure adrenaline right now.”