ROUNDUP, Mont. – With flames shooting over a nearby hillside and the sheriff telling them to get out now, Jim and Candy Tracy made the agonizing decision to leave their three horses behind as a wildfire closed in on their house in Montana's Bull Mountains.
They weren't able to return for two days, when a heartbreaking scene awaited them. The 57-year-old Jim Tracy halted to compose himself before he described what he found on the burned property south of Roundup.
Two of the animals, Barney and Sugar Doodle, sought shelter in a barn and lived. But the third, 27-year-old Buddy, was killed.
"We went back and everything, everything's gone," he said. "We saw Buddy about a hundred yards from the barn, dead. As we kept on walking we saw the two of them (Barney and Sugar Doodle) near the woods, and they were just standing there in shock."
Tracy's surviving horses suffered extensive burns and singed hair and were being treated at A K Veterinary Services in Roundup. Thick splotches of white burn cream covered much of the animals' bodies. But they weren't coughing — meaning they escaped the worst of the smoke that presumably killed Buddy — and were considered to have a good chance of recovering with only scars.
As wildfires consume hundreds of square miles in Montana and the West, many residents are having to choose between protecting their animals and saving their own lives. And that's led some to leave their livestock or pets to fend for themselves, with nothing more than an open gate to give the animals a chance to find safety.
Tales of compassion and bravery also have emerged. As a fire was bearing down on a neighborhood north of Helena on Monday, Brian Lee and three friends rounded up dozens of distressed horses, sheep and goats in an aluminum trailer and carted them to safety.
They made three separate trips into the fire zone, driving against the flow of departing residents. On their last trip, the men packed more than a dozen horses into a trailer built to hold six.
As they turned to go, the flames had reached the road. There was no other way out.
"So we sucked it up and drove right through the flames and the smoke, and we got out by the skin of our teeth," Lee said.
He didn't know most of the people whose animals they saved. But Lee said they were his neighbors and he felt obligated to help.
"We saw they were losing their homes and figured if anything, we would get their critters out. But we didn't figure it was going to be as intense as it was," he said.
Now that the 3-square-mile Corral fire is mostly contained and evacuation orders have been lifted, those returning home have started looking for their animals. Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton said no animals were killed in the fire, though residents said some animals were still missing.
Art Wilmer said he and his cousin Brenda Bossler were holding about 10 rescued horses on Bossler's 15-acre pasture. Several worried owners had come by in search of their missing horses after hearing that animals were being kept there.
Some were reunited with their animals, while others went away disappointed. As of Friday, only one horse remained — a beautiful sorrel with a blade face.
"Somebody will contact us, I'm sure," Wilmer said.
Since the 20,000-acre Dahl fire near Roundup ignited Tuesday, injured and dislocated animals have been steadily pouring into A K Veterinary Services, said Susann Klessens, who runs the business with her husband.
Stacks of cages holding homeless cats could be seen this week lining a wall in a back room. A pair of caged bunnies was nearby, while a displaced dog lounged on a dog bed in the reception area. In a barn attached to the back of the one-story building, 19 goats shared a stall near others containing Sugar Doodle, Barney and other injured horses.
Recovering from burns and other injuries is just one challenge facing the animals. In many cases their owners have nowhere to keep them and no way to provide them food, said Klessens.
"I would say a third of our client base lost their homes," she said. "There is no hay and no pasture, and the stored hay from last year is gone."
Injured wildlife in fire-struck areas face even dimmer prospects. Forests of ponderosa pine trees have been reduced to stands of lifeless, blackened trunks, the forest floor beneath burned down to bare earth.
Ecological recovery could take years or even decades: The Dahl fire burned just north of a 1984 blaze that left parts of the Bull Mountains a virtual moonscape, where few trees have regenerated almost three decades later.
One injured baby deer was fortunate enough end up at A K Veterinary after being rescued by Marsha Bell, a homeowner who lost everything in the fire.
Bell's house was uninsured and she said her husband and son plan to remove whatever steel they can from the wreckage and sell it as scrap metal. After discovering her losses Thursday, Bell said she and some relatives were getting ready to leave when someone noticed the fawn up against a burned tree. They picked it up and brought it to Klessens.
Klessens said the animal appeared to be just a few days old and would likely survive the various abrasions and burns on its small body. The fawn quickly took to a bottle of goat milk prepared by Klessens' daughter, Hanna.
"I couldn't have passed it by," Bell said of her decision to help the animal. "We started walking toward it, and it just started crying. I couldn't believe there was still something alive. You always want to help, even when you're in need yourself."
Volz reported from Helena.