'This could be the day I die.' Owner of animal sanctuary recalls harrowing ordeal as wildfire approached

Adriana Navarro

It had been an hour since Ellie Laks, the founder of The Gentle Barn, had called for backup as the wall of fire approached her property. The Tick Fire, which had been scorching Santa Clarita, California, was nearly at her doorstep. She and volunteers had since started loading up chickens and turkeys into crates. Potbellied pigs had been led into crates and cars before the dogs and the other household animals were herded into more cars belonging to the volunteers who had been working there that day. At the same time, volunteers who weren't busy with the animals began to load files and computers into cars.

The Tick Fire, which would grow to 4,615 acres, ignited on Oct. 24. By the time it was 100% contained on Oct. 31, the blaze had destroyed 22 structures and damaged another 27. The Santa Ana winds had spurred the fire along, sending it racing to the edge of The Gentle Barn's property on the day the blaze started. The Los Angeles County Fire Department had issued mandatory evacuations for the area.

All of the trailers had been filled, but still some animals remained. Over the years, the population of The Gentle Barn had increased, but Laks and her husband didn't have enough trailers to evacuate all of the animals in one trip. They had a large stock trailer and three smaller ones that can fit two horses each. Still, they had to call volunteers to bring in more trucks and trailers.

Laks had recognized its shortage in trailers when the number of the sanctuary's animal residents began to grow, and she had pulled together an evacuation program. In it, Laks had created a list of volunteers who, with one phone call, would start heading their way.

"Where was everybody?" is the thought that was on Laks' mind as she looked for her husband, Jay Weiner. The sheep and goats were supposed to be loaded into trailers next.

"They won't let them through," Weiner told Laks. "They won't let them through the blockade."

Firefighters had blocked off the roads volunteers needed to use to reach The Gentle Barn, which was in an area that was still under a mandatory evacuation order.

"That's the moment that it felt real, when I realized our backup was not coming," Laks told AccuWeather. "That was the moment where I was like, this could be it. We could be dying today. This could be the day I die."

For Laks, there was no evacuation without all of her animals.

"Had that fire come and the trucks couldn't make it to us and we couldn't get out, I would be going down with my animals. There's no way I would leave them," Laks said. "I promised to protect them for the rest of their lives, and I will die fulfilling that promise."

The firefighters allowed the volunteers who were there to help through after Weiner drove up to the blockade.

The flames of the Tick Fire had burned across the road from their property, the wind blowing some embers onto their land. Armed with fire extinguishers, shovels, jackets and boots, Weiner and a handful of the working volunteers available had spent part of the day holding the frontline of their property to buy more time for the evacuation efforts.

"We're literally on fire. We need help," Laks said was the message Weiner had delivered to the firefighters.

After being given the green light by the firefighters, the volunteers rushed to help with evacuating the remaining animals. Still, there were a few animals that were unable to make it into the trailers.

A handful of animals remained on the property, including a 700-pound pig and a stubborn draft horse that either couldn't or wouldn't step into a trailer to evacuate. Staff and volunteers worked up to midnight evacuating the animals to safer locations.

For six days, Laks and Weiner stayed on fire watch with little to no sleep even though the evacuation had been lifted after Oct. 26, two days after the fire had started and the evacuation ordered. Laks told AccuWeather she and her husband had pulled all-nighters for the first three nights in fear that the fire would return. They cautiously began to bring their animals home after the evacuation had been lifted, keeping an eye on the winds.

"I don't think I've been this exhausted in my entire life," Laks said, adding that the ordeal "depleted our immune system, which made us sick." This was the case a week after firefighters brought the Tick Fire under 100% containment. "Today is actually the first day I feel human again."

The animals are also recovering, Laks said. The evacuation had been especially hard on the older animals.

To get the animals "back to where they were before the fire," The Gentle Barn is using acupuncture, chiropractic, massage therapy, energy healing, nutritional supplements, holding therapy, ice therapy and electromagnetic therapy.

Sir Lancelot, a rescued 35-year-old Thoroughbred, is receiving Game Ready ice therapy after the Tick Fire evacuations. The Gentle Barn has also been providing acupuncture and massage therapy for him.

A few of the animals most affected by the evacuation included two old horses -- Sir Lancelot and Caesar, both over the age of 30. Horses typically live to 25-30 years.

"Both of them have mobility issues on a good day, but with the fire and the evacuation and the wind and the fear and trying to hold themselves up in a trailer, it kind of exhausted their bodies even worse," Laks said.

Another resident of The Gentle Barn is a 750-pound pig named Zeus. He wasn't able to step up into the trailer to evacuate and was one of the animals left at the barn for the owners to watch over.

"The efforts to try and get him into the trailer exhausted his body," Laks said. Zeus is now receiving acupuncture and energy healing along with other treatments in his recovery process.

Zeus, a 750-pound pig at The Gentle Barn, was unable to step up into a trailer to evacuate during the Tick Fire. The owners stayed behind to watch over him and a handful of other animals. (Image/The Gentle Barn)

Since the fire, The Gentle Barn has started a GoFundMe page to raise money for more trucks, trailers, a water tank and other equipment that would allow Laks and her husband to evacuate the animals without needing to rely on outside help in the case of another road blockade.

"We have to be more self-sustaining," Laks said, though she is also thankful for the volunteers who came out to help during the Tick Fire.

"We are deeply, deeply grateful to the community," Laks said. "In the worst of times, we see the best in humanity, and we've never felt more supported or loved than now. And we just, we love our community. We're so grateful."

Looking toward the future, The Gentle Barn is holding a Thanksgiving event on Thanksgiving Day where people will be able to "cuddle turkeys and feed them pie."

Ellie Laks brought Alice the turkey home to The Gentle Barn after the evacuations were lifted. (Image/The Gentle Barn)

"We'll have a lot to be thankful for," Laks said.

Later in the month, the heavens opened up, bringing much-needed relief to Southern California.

"We're looking forward to lots and lots of rain," Laks said. "And being able to save more animals and heal more children and open more hearts and just do what we do without the threat of a fire."