Community rallied for victims and firefighters

Shelter for the displaced quickly found

The community of La Plata County came together showing their support for all of the firefighters who battled the Missionary Ridge Fire. Enlarge photo

Durango Herald file photo

The community of La Plata County came together showing their support for all of the firefighters who battled the Missionary Ridge Fire.

As firefighters moved against the fast-traveling Missionary Ridge Fire by ground and by air, law enforcement and other public agencies got busy finding refuge for displaced people and livestock, mainly horses.

La Plata County Sheriff Duke Schirard was all over the map.

“The first month I drove 9,000 miles without leaving the county,” Schirard said. “We evacuated 800 Vallecito residents and livestock, tracked down a woman who was deliberately setting fires and caught people who were looting unoccupied houses.”

Schirard remembers locking horns with federal officials about his insistence on ferrying mountain residents to unburned areas in jail vans to inspect their property or pick up items such as medicine.

“All in all, it was a very trying time,” Schirard said. “But it was the most rewarding experience in my 37½ years in law enforcement.”

“Everyone came together,” said Mike Dunaway, then chief of Durango Fire & Rescue Authority. “A community is at its strongest in an emergency.”

Carmen Dille-Hachmann, now disaster chairwoman of the Red Cross in La Plata County, coordinated agency activities during the fire.

“We’d already been busy at the Breen Fire and the Edgemont Ranch Fire,” she said. “For the first few days of Missionary Ridge, no shelter was needed because people who had to evacuate found a place with friends or family.”

Ultimately, the agency set up shelters in schools and granges to serve hot breakfast, supper and a sack lunch.

The generosity of La Plata County residents extended to the equine population. Foster homes were found for all the four-legged creatures that needed help, the director of animal services at the time said.

“Residents gave their homes and their hearts,” Tonya Kahler Sakadinsky said. “We didn’t have an animal that had to be euthanized.”

Ann Hamm, an animal services volunteer, was ready with a list of people willing to provide foster care, Kahler Sakadinsky said.

“We started with that list and built from there,” she said. “It was an amazing response. It was life-altering to see how people stepped forward.”

Horse trailers from as far as Redmesa lined up to be escorted into the Vallecito area to rescue equines, which included at least one donkey, Kahler Sakadinsky said.

It was hectic, said shelter volunteer Maggie Bowes.

“People were bringing in their whole menagerie,” Bowes said. “They had dogs, cats, goldfish, snakes, even a turtle.”

Bowes, who answered the phone and washed dogs, fell in love with an unclaimed reddish-white border collie/Brittany spaniel mix. She ended up adopting the dog that staff members had named Taxi. She still has him today.

“People who came to the shelter didn’t wait more than 15 minutes to be connected to a foster family for their animals,” Kahler Sakadinsky said.

In a few cases, foster-care providers themselves had to scoot ahead of flames, she said. They found the same helping hand they had provided.

Two weeks into the fire, the American Humane Association described the La Plata County animal rescue as a model operation.

Community generosity and support extended to the firefighters. Merchants and residents couldn’t seem to do enough for them.

“I’ve been to forest fires in 11 western states over 25 years,” said Gary Krauss, a logger from eastern Oregon. “But I never saw an outpouring of community appreciation like in Durango.

“When we asked for our bill in a restaurant once, the waitress said someone had picked up the tab,” he said.

Julie McDonald, a schoolteacher in Mancos on summer break, joined Helping Hands, an ad hoc group that managed donations from a vacant store in the Durango Mall.

“It was a very bonding experience,” said McDonald, who spent some nights with a fearful elderly couple on East Animas Road (County Road 250) and drove a firefighter, who had missed her ride, to Great Falls, Mont., so she didn’t miss a wedding.

“No one was turned away,” said McDonald, who now lives in Cameron, Mo. “If you needed something, someone got it for you.”

Schirard Enlarge photo