Volunteers rescue animals from safe harbors amid Black Forest ashes

By Jakob Rodgers Updated: June 19, 2013 at 11:24 am • Published: June 13, 2013 | 9:35 pm 0

As the dark brown mustang walked through ash to a horse trailer Thursday evening, the beast bolted from Alan Havens' hands.

"I'm not going to ride that one out of here, honey," Michelle Andree yelled.

Even if she could, she'd have nowhere to go.

Forty-eight hours earlier, the Black Forest fire raged across Rusk Lane, destroying the couple's house - Havens' childhood home. They escaped with their horse, and decided to dedicate their time to helping animals left behind.

"I don't know what else I'd be doing with my time," Andree said.

Dozens of people with the Kit Carson Riding Club joined them, racing into the evacuation zone with horse trailers in tow, finding livestock and returning it to the club's headquarters on Black Forest Road, one mile north of Woodmen Road. The group worked under the auspices of the Black Forest Animal Sanctuary.

The calls for help were constant during the fire's first 48 hours.

By Wednesday afternoon, the group saved 11 horses, 14 dogs and one bunny, Andree said. Later that evening, they rescued 13 sheep and goats stranded on a triangle of grass surrounded by an ashen landscape off Herring Road.

The fire had destroyed a house, leaving only a chimney. Three goats died, many of the surviving animals were singed.

"I don't know what was there to begin with," said Phelan Warren, a volunteer.

In all, more than 150 animals were brought to the club since the fire's start on Tuesday, either by rescuers or by fleeing homeowners.

On Thursday morning Andree pulled into the club's stables and peeled a banana.

She collapsed into Warren's arms before taking a bite, sobbing.

"I've been trying to be so strong," said Andree, her eyes red.

Havens grew up in their house on Rusk Lane in the 1970s, and moved back about 20 years later to help run the family business, Havens Excavation LLC.

When the fire rolled through on Tuesday, Andree and Havens stuffed their vehicles with belongings. They saved their horse and a Harley Davidson, but they couldn't grab their dogs and cat.

On Thursday, Andree ran through their losses.

A skid loader. Two dump trucks. A 1951 Cadillac. Trailers filled with equipment for the business, which they run out of the house.

None of it was insured, Andree said.

"His dad lived like we do - paycheck to paycheck," Andree said.

They worked for free Thursday, driving with a handful of volunteers down Black Forest Road and then left down Gun Club Road, among the worst-hit areas.

Each run brought a new view of the devastation - sobering moments, often viewed in silence.

At 4:45 p.m., two trucks pulling trailers and a Jeep sped down Gun Club Trail, looking for loose horses reported in the area.

Havens and Andree, in their own truck, sped in a different direction - taking the chance to look at their own house.

About 30 minutes later, Havens returned to the group and lit a cigarette.

"It's all gone," Havens said. "I figured. I tried to call for my dog. No response."

Andree never left the truck.

"I didn't have the nerve to go look," she said.

They went back to work.

Minutes later, working on a tip from firefighters, they found 11 chickens in a coop at 13195 Highline Drive, where the fire came within feet of the sitll-pristine house.

Twenty minutes later, as a helicopter circled overhead, the crew spotted two loose horses at 5945 Vessey Road.

"There's no telling where these horses came from if they're loose," Andree said.

Nearly a half-hour later, they found two more - one of them the wily mustang, emblazoned with a freeze-dried brand on her neck.

Andree and Havens corralled the horses at 13065 Pinery Drive, a place that appeared unscathed save for windows that shattered in the heat.

Volunteer Jaycie Francis, 19, walked with her boyfriend down a dirt driveway and up the concrete steps of a log cabin that stood no more.

"We used to sit right there," she said, pointing to a fireplace - the only part of the house standing.

Her grandparents built this house. Her aunt lived there.

Ten feet away, a swing with cloth seats remained.

Twenty feet away was a 5-foot pile of pine needles, one of several scattered across the property - signs of fire mitigation.

"The pine needles didn't even burn, but their house did," said James Creek, another volunteer.

At that moment, Havens called.

The mustang lassoed once again, he led the horse into a trailer.

And an hour before sunset, Andree smiled.

"I'm getting exhausted, but we're doing OK," she said.

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