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Central Alberta woman leads rescue effort to save N.W.T. horses

A central Alberta woman who once called Yellowknife home recently travelled more than 50 hours to save 25 animals, including goats, budgies and 18 horses, from wildfires in the Northwest Territories.

Sienna Kellar of Innisfail got a call in mid-August from a friend in the territory’s capital and largest city. The friend was stabling 16 horses with the wildfires approaching but not enough trailers to transport them all to safety.

“I just knew that we had to do something about that,” said Kellar.

The stable housed horses Kellar grew up riding. North Country Stables are located right on the western city limits of Yellowknife next to the airport. Given its location, the wildfire threat was imminent.

A caravan of trucks and trailers from Innisfail, Alta., on the way to Yellowknife, N.W.T., to rescue 18 horses from wildfire threats. (Supplied)


She jumped into action, calling enough family and friends until she secured four trailers and seven other people to join her. The next day, the caravan of trucks and trailers headed north.

“We didn’t peel out of here until about 7 p.m. on Wednesday night (Aug. 16),” said Kellar. “Because we knew the roads were already shut down and there was a possibility that we wouldn’t make it all the way up if the fires really got bad, we decided we were going to have to drive all night.”

With two people in each vehicle, they rotated drivers for the 18-hour-plus journey, which “was pretty intense,” said Kellar, recalling getting lost once in the dark and observing the damage in the N.W.T. for the first time with a 450-km drive to Yellowknife still ahead of them.

“You didn’t really realize how crazy the fire was until we got to Enterprise, (where) everything was burnt down,” she said. “Every building was burnt down. The shops were burnt down. People’s houses were burnt down. Trees were all burnt down. Then we got to Fort Providence, the last fueling station before Yellowknife, and the lineup was kilometres long of people trying to get fuel to come south.”

As Keller and the caravan approached Yellowknife, the damage and danger was on full display.

“There was a lot of smouldering, and you could tell that they just put the fire out in a lot of areas,” Keller said recalling the scene. “There were helicopters flying over, bombers flying over.”

They managed to reach the stable and load the horses, which was an easier task than usual given the circumstances, she said

“If you’re a horse person, you know how horrible trailer-loading can be,” Keller said. “The horses, it’s like they just knew something was wrong and they got on the trailer really well.”

Horses peer from one of the trailers from Innisfail, Alta., used to transport them from the threat of wildfires in the Northwest Territories. (Supplied)


The group then managed to leave the N.W.T.

“Loading them up was problem No. 1 down, but (then we thought), ‘We’ve got to get out of here. We’ve got to get out of the Northwest Territories,'” Kellar said. “As soon as we crossed the border out of the territories, it was like a giant sigh of relief, like OK, we did this. We got these horses out of there. We didn’t run out of fuel. We didn’t get on fire. We didn’t get stuck in Yellowknife. The horses were loaded and we got back …

“It was quite an amazing feeling when we came back to Alberta.”

Their only other option besides bringing them back to the province — some of them were dropped off in Peace River before the group travelled back to Innisfail — was to release them into the wild, but Kellar said that wasn’t really an option given the terrain and some of the horses’ old ages — including 32-year-old Norman and 35-year-old Daisy, who Kellar learned to ride as a girl.

“They’re geriatric, they’re domesticated,” she said. “There’s not really any food up there for them either. It’s tundra, no grass. There’s no running out to a pasture and eating grass, so the likeliness of any of them surviving was very, very slim. They probably would have perished.”

Most of the horses being stabled in Peace River will head back to Yellowknife once the wildfire threats end — “Other than the old guys; we’re trying to find retirement homes for them,” said Kellar — while a couple might stay with her in Innisfail.

But without help from her friends, the rescue wouldn’t have been possible.

“I couldn’t have done it on my own,” Kellar said. “I know I’m the one getting all the phone calls about talking to people, but without them, this trip was not possible at all.” 

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