A devastating forest fire started near a popular trailhead at the base of the Bridger Mountains in Bozeman, Montana--the home of Alpacas of Montana--on Friday, September 4th. At first there were just a few plumes of smoke and most Bozeman dwellers thought that the fire would be extinguished within a matter of hours. Saturday morning during a business meeting, we walked outside to see the sky fitted with smoke. The mountains holding Bridger Bowl and the canyon housing homes, farms, memories and dozens of the locals’ favorite spots were being suffocated by flames ripping through structures and trails. (Picture below is the view of the fire from our house.)
Shortly after the conclusion of the meeting Alpacas of Montana owners, James and Sarah, started calling people they knew who lived up Bridger Canyon, Jackson Creek and Kelly Canyon. Residents were cutting their fences to their pastures so their animals could have a chance at outrunning the fire--since they only had a matter of minutes to be evacuated, watching the fire burn in front and behind them and scrambling to get themselves out of the canyon as quickly as possible. It was too late for the majority of the lower Bridger Canyon residents to get both themselves and their animals safely out of the canyon, but folks up Jackson Creek and Kelly Canyon still had a chance; however, time was running out. In a matter of minutes the fire jumped the road and was sprinting toward structures and a place that both James and Sarah had called home for many years. James used to ride his horse up Jackson Creek and knew how quickly the wind could carry the fire.
Roughly 14 years ago Jennifer Read, a former neighbor and dear friend of Sarah and James, purchased several alpacas from Alpacas of Montana, making her alpacas a part of Alpacas of Montana’s forever family. Jennifer lives in Jackson Creek and asked James and Sarah for immediate help in getting her llama, alpacas and dogs safely away from the fire’s threat due to the fact the fire was moving rapidly in their direction. James and Sarah set up their trailer and headed straight toward the fire. Smoke flooded the canyon and the crackling roar of the fire sounded like a freight train was steam rolling the Bridgers. No other cars were headed into the canyon, but many were piling out with disoriented, heartbroken people in tow. (Side picture shows what James and Sarah drove into.)
To James’ and Sarah’s surprise--given that they aren’t handled often--Jennifer’s alpacas loaded into the trailer seamlessly and without much wasted time. After the alpacas and the llama were safely loaded, James and Sarah caught the two horses and brought them to a second trailer. One of the horses--an older mare--loaded in without a second thought. James took a deep breath and thought: wow, maybe we will get everyone out of here safe and sound without running out of time, but the tides quickly turned when Sherpa, a 21 year old gelding whacked his head on the top of the trailer when he was first attempting to pull himself into the trailer. Without much experience in a trailer, that incident set precedent for him: he wasn’t getting in the trailer. The winds switched direction for a brief period, loaning more time to try and load Sherpa. During this period, both James and Sarah were receiving text messages nearly every two minutes from the authorities saying that they had to evacuate immediately or they wouldn’t make it out of the canyon--period. Feeling the tension and anxiety of the people around him, Sherpa got more and more tense and over the course of an hour and a half and even after utilizing every trick in the book, James and Sarah came up short--he wouldn’t load. Stomachs dropping and hearts breaking, James and Sarah took the mare out of the trailer to be with Sherpa, opened the gates to the pasture in the direction that would lead the horses to safety if they started to run from the fire and headed down the canyon. As two people who view their animals as their children, leaving the two horses crushed both James and Sarah. (Below photo shows Sherpa not being willing to load in the trailer.)
When they finally got out of the canyon, the Sheriff asked why the hell they had still been in there since the fire was closing in on Jackson Creek swiftly. They explained the situation and told the slew of 18-20 community volunteer trucks and trailers waiting to offer assistance (catching animals fleeing toward safety) parked at the entrance to the canyon that if the wind died down and they had a moment to go back in there were two horses up Jackson Creek that needed rescuing, but they wouldn’t get out via trailer.
James and Sarah returned to their farm with the alpacas and the llama. They had a busy night settling all of the animals into their new temporary home, but ultimately still felt defeated as they went to sleep knowing Jennifer’s two horses were stuck in the fire. The images of cows and horses running over Jackson Creek Pass trying to escape was burned in their minds. (Below video shows rescued alpacas meeting "the locals" at their new temporary home.)
The following morning someone sent them the video that has been circulating around the internet of a horse being led out of Bridger Canyon via halter as it trots alongside a white truck (click link for video). A friend pointed out that the halter looked just like the one on Sherpa--the horse they spent so long trying to rescue. In disbelief, James took a look at the video and realized it was the same halter and same horse. The people he had talked to at the base of the canyon saw an opportunity to go back in and look for the two horses that James mentioned, and since Sherpa wouldn’t load they led him down the canyon alongside the truck. (Picture of Sherpa being led to safety by volunteer animal rescue.)
James and Sarah’s passion for animals and loyalty to their herd saved the lives of 11 alpacas, 1 llama and 3 dogs (who were evacuated with their owners). They firmly believe that we should all know and understand what it takes to get our loved ones out of harm's way, including socializing and familiarizing our animals with loading in trailers so that in a pinch they can be taken to safety. We all need exit strategies in place, because we always think that the bad thing will never happen to us until it does.
Wapiti and Domingo munching on some grass and enjoying the sunshine.
Even with temperatures in the 20s and snow in the mountains, the Bridger Foothills Fire is still in action. As the fire continues to burn, the new additions to the alpaca herd are getting along nicely at Alpacas of Montana headquarters. Currently there are 28 confirmed horses and many reported elk herds that died as a result of the fire. Our thoughts are with everyone in these trying times. We hope as the temperatures drop and fire season finally comes to an end you all will find yourselves cozied up with a warm alpaca blanket, some peace and the people you love.
Volunteer animal rescue helping with animal rescue and residents support.