The outpouring of support for people displaced by the Fort McMurray wildfire was overwhelming — and so was the effort to rescue and care for horses from the area.
Krista Critch was one of many volunteers who dropped everything to help save horses and pets at the height of the crisis. She had driven up with supplies in her livestock trailer to Boyle in north-central Alberta, where family members were staying in campers after being evacuated.
She had been unsuccessfully trying to hook up with an animal rescue effort. When she got up north, she met others who shared her concern, and they all immediately sprang into action.
“We went up to help and ended up meeting up with a bunch of people there and we all teamed up and kept hauling,” said Critch, a mule breeder from north of Vermilion who is originally from Newfoundland.
Volunteers working under the direction of the Alberta SPCA co-ordinated a drop-off pasture for horses at the juncture of Highway 63 and Highway 881. Critch connected with organizer Holly Plunkett, owner of Plunkett Ranch & Rescue in Alix, who had gone up north to arrange foster homes, feed donations, and horse transportation.
“There are lots of people involved with the rescue effort,” said Critch. “In the beginning, I was just communicating with three or four people, but then there were about 50 people. There were actually too many to help with the animals, so they just asked some people to step back and let a few people organize.”
There weren’t a lot of horses in the area — a survey by Alberta Farm Animal Care put the number of horse owners with acreages at 15 and the city’s one large stable, Clearwater Horse Club, had already been evacuated.
But the volunteers knew horses would be a major challenge for overworked emergency personnel since they don’t often have training in handling large animals.
“That’s part of the reason why so many horse people got involved,” said Critch. “We knew that the horses were going to be moved.”
Critch didn’t get close to the fire zone, but didn’t have to.
“Wherever they would let us go, we went,” she said. “We didn’t have to go into the city. People were loading the horses out and then I would switch the horses into my trailer and get ready to drop them off and change it up to make it go a little quicker.”
Some horses had been set free and were wandering around loose. Critch managed to catch three of them and bring them to the drop-off pasture. One of the owners was waiting there when she arrived.
“We got to witness one reunion,” Critch said. “I think the other two have been accounted for and their owners have been found.”
There were people riding around back roads, catching horses, and pulling them out.
“I had one friend who rode her horse through town (while she was getting out) and she ended up catching five more horses,” said Critch.
She is not sure how many horses have been rescued from the city. She has 11 at her ranch, her friend has seven in Tofield, and there were dozens in the drop-off pasture.
Critch also rescued seven dogs, which she delivered to the Edmonton Humane Society.
“We had a truck full of dogs,” she said. “I was driving and there was one person in the passenger seat and one in the back and we just hoped the dogs got along. They did. They rode pretty good.”
They were also exhausted by their ordeal.
“By the time they got into our car with the AC on, they just slept the whole way,” said Critch. “There was one lab-cross that wanted his head out the window the entire time, so we just let him.”
Critch is keeping the rescued horses on two of her quarter sections, free of charge.
“We’ll keep them as long as need be,” she said.
The Alberta Equestrian Federation has compiled a list of people who are ready and willing to help. The federation is also raising money for feed, transportation, and veterinary care, and has also arranged drop-off spots in Edmonton, Red Deer, and Calgary for donations of items such as feed tubs, halters, and first-aid supplies. (Items must be new to avoid biosecurity issues.)
For more info, go to albertaequestrian.com.
CORRECTION, May 16, 2016: An earlier version of this article incorrectly placed the village of Boyle in Alberta’s Peace region.