On Saturday, May 30th, a large brush fire broke out in Cave Creek, Arizona, the town of about 6,000 people where I live. It’s wildfire season here. The town of New River, our neighbor to the west, had the East Desert Fire which claimed 1,492 acres only 2 weeks ago.
Around 1:30pm on Saturday, right after watching the historic NASA and SpaceX launch, I’m heading south on Cave Creek Rd with my husband and step-daughters. In the rearview, we see huge smoke plumes in the air. My husband, Dane, drives as I search online for reports of the fire. News reports say a fire has started off of Ocotillo Rd, north of the popular Rancho Mañana Golf Course.
By the time we drop off the kids and start heading back to Cave Creek, we can see dark smoke from miles away. Posts and photos about the fire are being made on a popular local Facebook group. From there, I find Arizona Foothills 911, a Facebook group “for Neighbors helping Neighbors in emergency situations.” The group is organizing volunteers to help evacuate people and animals.
Now dubbed the Ocotillo Fire, 350 acres have burned by the time Dane and I get to the volunteer headquarters.
Evacuation orders cover 90,000 acres. This includes at least 60 homes, most of them ranches with outbuildings (barns, stables, garages). Most of them are home to animals.
It is over 110 degrees outside, and we’re standing in the hot sun right in the middle of town. Volunteer headquarters is Frontier Town, a shopping and tourist area with local shops and a Wild West theme. The owner, Marc, is in a fluorescent vest helping organize the volunteers.
Before too long, dozens of cars show up, unloading cases of water, coolers, and ice for the volunteers. Veterinary clinics, horse trainers, and residents offer stall space for the horses that have been evacuated from the fire. So many people come to volunteer their time, energy and equipment, we have to move them onto a bigger dirt lot. Many of them work for hours in the hot sun while aircraft fly overhead, battling the fire.
“I had to evacuate two weeks ago because of that other fire,” a volunteer tells me. She came to help, remembering how the community helped her two weeks before.
A man named Al drops off cases of water and tells us he’ll be back after dinner to help. Ranchers show up with spare harnesses and lead ropes for loose horses.
Meanwhile, firefighters are fighting against hot temperatures and strong winds. Around 4pm, evacuation orders for the town spread to over 8 square miles. The local Tumbleweed Hotel offers residents a place to stay. The Red Cross is set up at the local high school. Residents outside of the evacuation area open their doors and stables for strangers and their animals. Fry’s Foods, Barro’s Pizza, and Heart & Soul Cafe donate food for the volunteers.
At 7pm, a call comes to rescue 26 horses from the evacuation area. Immediately, a dozen volunteers coordinate to rescue the horses, including four that need to be kept separate from the rest. Horse people know each other, and a few names are quickly called out as the best people to handle the most difficult horses. Within minutes, they are on their way.
Shortly after, more volunteers head to Chaparral Veterinary Clinic. The local vet has offered to house the rescued horses. Temporary pens are set up by volunteers. The trailered horses begin arriving after dark. Two vets are on-site, ready if any horses need medical attention.
Back at the rodeo grounds, locals donate feed for the horses. Volunteers keep track of the residents and businesses who are housing rescued animals. As soon as hay donations come in, they are sent out to the places that need it.
“When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully, everyone is blessed.” — Maya Angelou
The fire spread so quickly, many residents were forced to turn their horses, donkeys, and cattle loose, hoping they survive and are reunited again. Some painted their phone numbers on their horses.
One woman shared a picture of two elderly donkeys who were too shook up to load into the trailer when she evacuated. “If they wander onto your property and you are safe can you hold them for me? God bless all and thank you,” she wrote. It was shared by local residents 4,300 times.
Over 500 people and 250 animals were evacuated on Saturday. Volunteers — many of whom were evacuees themselves — worked late into the night relocating horses and coordinating deliveries of donated items.
As of Sunday, the Ocotillo Fire still burns at 980 acres, with about a dozen structures lost and 10% contained. The majority of the lost structures are secondary buildings such as barns. The fire is human-caused, but the source is still under investigation.
Some, but not all, residents have been allowed to return home. Volunteers are working to organize a round-up of the horses and cattle as soon as it is safe to do so.
And those two elderly donkeys? They have been spotted — safe and together. ❤️