Wherever you get your news, there is a lot of terrifying footage of the wildfires that continue to rage across the Northwest Territories and BC. The evacuation of Yellowknife, the capital of the NWT, was a shocking reminder that climate change has upended so many lives.
As residents prepared to leave Yellowknife, the owners of North Country Stables had to determine the fate of their stable of horses, ponies, and other animals before the fire reached them. The grim choice to set the animals free to fend for themselves was unthinkable. The owners, Patricia Dartnell and veterinarian Dr. Tom Pisz, reached out to a former student and Yellowknife resident, Sienna Kellar, who now runs Northern Hart Equestrian in Innisfail, Alberta.
Kellar knew the horses, and knew she had to act ‒ swiftly ‒ putting out a call to find volunteers with horse trailers to form a convoy. With little time to spare, Kellar found eight people with four trucks and trailers to hit the road and drive the 18 hours into an active wildfire zone to rescue the 22 horses plus miniature horses, donkeys, and goats.
The biggest challenge was worrying about fuel. In the NWT there aren’t many gas stations and the unprecedented evacuation of 22,000 people made the situation more dire because everyone was trying to buy fuel to escape. “We were not able to fuel in the hamlet of Fort Providence [which is 3.5 hours south of Yellowknife] and had heard there was no fuel in Yellowknife,” she explains in an email. “The panic was on as we knew if there wasn’t gas in Yellowknife, we wouldn’t have enough to make it back to High Level.” The problem was solved by one of North Country’s riders, Abbey Wilson, who had Co-Op lock cards which unlocked fuel at the station.
Then there was the drive itself. “Driving through the smoke and smoulder with winds picking up was pretty scary. You knew that this all could light up again in an instant,” she says. “There were helicopters and planes flying overhead dropping water and retardant. We drove past two active fires as well. You’re just praying you can get up there and back before it closes the highway. There is only one way in and out of Yellowknife.”
The convoy was also stopped by official roadblocks as they neared the area. But after the convoy’s animal rescue mission was explained they were allowed through. Once they arrived at North Country the second biggest challenge was that the horses had not been on a trailer in 15-20 years. “Some of them were born in the north and had never been in a trailer,” Kellar says. “The fear that we might not get them all to load was very real. However, the crew was amazing, and we even built some squeeze chutes and had them on in an hour and a half.”
Now that everyone is back and safe and sound, Kellar has had time to think about the sense of community that shone through and made what seemed impossible, possible.
“The crew who came north with me had never met anyone from Yellowknife. Most had never even been to or seen Yellowknife before other than my husband,” she says. “The fact they risked getting stuck, driving all night, donating time, vehicles and trailers is a true testament to the amazing horse community we have. Those who couldn’t drive donated trailers.”
The Workwize Racing Stables and the Vallance family are two that heeded the call when Kellar asked for rigs to make the journey. Once on the road, the convoy was given free coffee and sandwiches from the locals in Fort Providence. “When you’re running on empty for energy this gives you a huge boost,” Kellar admits.
In Alberta, many of the North Country animals have been welcomed by another former Yellowknife resident, Mark Benoit of Peace River, who built extra pens to house the horses on his property.
He told the CBC that his family’s farm was lost to flooding in 2022, so he understood the hardship and also how a community must come together to help during an emergency. Together with family and friends he added pens to his farm in Alberta for his temporary animal guests. “I had my mother and my brother and my two kids and my wife helping and we just buckled down and got it done,” he told the media outlet.
A week later and the horses and other animals are doing well. “The horses think they are on vacation,” says Kellar. “They have never seen big open fields of grass before. They came out of the trailers ears perked and ready to run.”
One of the horses is Norman, 28, who has mobility issues and there was concern that he’d have to be put down if he couldn’t load in the trailer or collapsed during the journey. “However, we squeezed him nice and tight in some dividers so he had support to hold him up,” Kellar explains. “When he unloaded at Peace River many people had tears in their eyes. Norman is kind of a status symbol in the north. Many people have learned to ride on him. When he had a retirement party a few years ago many community members in Yellowknife came to celebrate him.”
Currently there is no word on when the animals can safely return to Yellowknife. North Country Stables is situated on the outskirts of the city, which puts it right in the path of the wildfire and it could be easily destroyed. “We hope and pray it doesn’t come to that, but that will be a big factor about when these horses can go home,” Kellar says. “When they are able to go home, I will be more than happy to take them back north.”
This is a good news story in a summer of tough-to-watch news stories, but Kellar wants to make one thing clear about the daring rescue she led, posting on Facebook: “This was not just me. I may have pushed go. However, the seven others who helped me, the people who donated trailers, those who made sure we could get through, have fuel and fed us food and coffee made this trip possible. Without them I’m one person in one truck, one trailer with lots of red tape.”