The Mesquite Online News - Texas A&M University-San Antonio

Community rallies to evacuate endangered horses in Bastrop




Smoke from Tahitian Village blanket the sky as fires move west toward Bastrop. The fire eventually crossed to Bastrop killing a total of 34,068 acres and leaving many homeless. Courtesy Photo


To help the victims of Bastrop, donations can be sent to the Bastrop Church of Christ. To donate, visit their website at Monetary donations can be made to the Bastrop Church of Christ, designated for “Fire Evacuees” or sent to 287 FM 20 Bastrop, Texas, 79602, or P.O. Box 367, Bastrop, Texas, 79602.

By Vanessa M. Sanchez


They were covered in ashes as they unloaded the last horse to a nearby yard away from the fire’s movement. Rachel Steen and a team of 18 students and volunteers were certain there would be nothing standing by morning.
Steen, head trainer of the Balance Point Equestrian Center located six miles south of Bastrop, grew up surrounded by, working with and caring for horses.
Earlier that day, Steen said the wind shifted and her stable, where she boards 44 horses, was threatened by the approaching fire.Realizing she had more trailers than trucks to pull the horses, one of her students desperately reached to Facebook to find help and an evacuation route.When the community responded and Steen received enough trucks to pull the horses from the center in an attempt to find safety, fires began to ignite in their view, eliminating the escape routes one at a time till there was one. Steen then decided to camp out in a nearby ranch.

Considering the wrath of the Bastrop County fire, Steen said, “It was the most terrifying moment of my entire life.”

Nell Carroll, photo editor at the Austin-American Statesman, assisted Steen. Carroll said: “I lost one (foal), she was a baby and freaking out. She broke her back  and died instantly. I don’t know if it was smoke hurting her, but it was pretty tragic.” Steen said that horse’s spine twisted and severed the spinal column.

Over the hill within Tahitian Village, smoke and ash thicken as fires travel to Bastrop. Eventually it takes 640 people to diminish this fire. Smaller fires, however, continue to spark about the town.

On Sept. 4, Steen stayed awake monitoring the progress of the Bastrop fires, hoping they would not cross the Colorado River to her side of the town. By morning, Steen’s neighbor called her to inform her that the fire was moving west.

The day after evacuating the horses, residents of Bastrop were still assessing damage to their own property. The initial media remained focus on loss of residential property while Steen, tired and exhausted from transporting horses, discussed her own experience in a phone interview with The Mesquite.

A citizen of Bastrop, where wildfires continue to burn, Steen said she had slept only one hour the previous night.

She said one of the volunteers calculated that it took a total of six hours to get everyone, animals included, to safety. But with fires continuously emerging, Steen said it felt as if it took the entire day.

“We had the fire coming down on us and we only had one escape route left. We decided to camp out in someone’s yard, but needed to get the horses there,” she said. “I was too busy to talk on the phone and my battery was dying so someone posted on Facebook, and it went viral.”

After the plea for assistance, people began to send trucks. “I really couldn’t use my phone,” Steen said, describing how the line was rendered useless. “I was getting calls (offering help) every two seconds.”

Though the Facebook page increased the recovery effort, Steen said most of the help came from people who students personally contacted.

“We got all 44 horses out and into safety,” Steen said. “We had several horses colicing from the stress but we’ve been fortunate overall.”

Although with volunteers’ help, all horses were saved, Steen said she had to change her phone number. She explained her fear saying: “I was in the middle of a disaster and no one could reach me.”

Carroll, who lives on six acres, shared her experience of that day. She said she was shooting photos when, “my best friend (Steen) called and said we need to evacuate.”

A tractor sits as fire reaches Bastrop. The once grey smoke blackens the day warning citizens to evacuate if they had yet to do so.

With 44 horses to save, the women faced their second problem of trying to figure which horses were compatible enough to share a stable without conflict.

To save the horses, Carroll said, “it was really just a great community effort.”

After Steen received enough trucks to pull the trailers, she began to ask callers to donate a dollar to the fire victims.

She said if everyone who called donated a dollar, the outcome would have been different; she would have raised $2,000.

“Frustrating thing is that if people cared enough to call, they should care enough to help the victims,” she said.

Steen questions: “Did Facebook really help? I don’t know other than it was a blip and if it doesn’t help the victims now, then what’s the point?”

Carroll said Steen also had cows but had to let them go on their own. Steen’s income revolves largely around her horses, and therefore, had to leave the cows behind in order to quickly save the horses. From this point, they escorted the first group of horses to safety.

Carroll said, “On our way back, we saw another fire start by my ranch; we evacuated to a different route.”

She said the entire safety trip took them from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. “It was just so hardening,” Carroll said. “It’s something I would not want to do again.”

As she continued to speak with The Mesquite, she discussed that in the midst of returning the horses, another fire ignited by another friend’s house.

“The fires are not over yet. A couple of fires are starting over the area. That’s the thing that’s so frustrating, it’s not done,” she said.

More than 1500 homes are destroyed leaving 4,000 people homeless, most of them with animals, she said.

This encouraged Steen to start a hay drive for various foster places, evacuation centers and veterinary clinics.

“We diverted all of our time to fire victims because we have a place to live,” she said. “That’s something that most of these people don’t have. Most of these people have nothing.”

There are definitely thousands of lost animals, Steen said. It is only a matter of catching those horses and finding dogs and cats to aid them at clinics, evacuation stations and foster homes and reunite them with their rightful owners.

She said some horses are going as far as across central Texas for safety.

Many horses had to be put down for smoke inhalation, another had its feet burned off and also had to be put down, Steen said. “Horses are going through burnt noses, lungs, smoke inhalation, everything you expect going through a fire.”

Steen’s horses were part of the few not injured in the terrifying event. “We had a miracle,” Steen said.

Surrounded by demolished homes, ash and debris, Steen revisited her home as soon as the fires ceased to find it was still in tact.

Ash and pinewood blanketed her grounds, however, she said: “The fires stopped right before it hit us. Our gate is dead, someone ran into it, but it’s not even worth talking about because we have our facility. For whatever reason, we were spared.”

According to the Bastrop County Fire Complex Fact Sheet on Sept. 15, it took five fire crews, 79 engines, two helicopters, seven water tenders and one dozer to stop the fires, equivalent to 640 people.

The fact sheet states, “Hotspots continue to burn within the fire perimeter, smoldering continues around burned trees. Anyone in the areas that have been opened is urged to use caution when working around residences and traveling in the area.”

Another downside to the fires is that everyone is busy working, so unless one is standing face-to-face with someone else, questions will not be answered about anything including lost and found pets.

Steen said about the county’s communication process: “It’s take care of them (the animals) first, and ask questions later.”

“I just want people to help all the homeless and not forget that these people lost everything,” Steen said. It’s a catastrophic event. Those of us who were spared, we have an obligation to help.”

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