Community connections can come when least expected. Through the destruction and loss brought by wildfires in Lassen County, California, glimmers of hope came in the form of local citizens banding together to support one another.
Johnnie Taylor Jr. has lived in Susanville, California, for seven years. In the city of roughly 15,000 people, Johnnie missed the community connection he had where he grew up, in Lemoore, California. There, when anyone needed help, people were ready.
During this summer’s wildfires, Johnnie saw a way to help. In mid-July, the Hog Fire sparked in Lassen County. As the fire expanded in late July, Johnnie started the Facebook group now known as Lassen County Fires Community Concerns and Information.
“There wasn’t enough information out there about what was going on, and people didn’t know where to get it,” Johnnie says. “People were really dependent on me giving them updated info in the group.”
The Facebook group took off as the Hog Fire inched closer to neighborhoods outside of Susanville, Johnnie says, eventually surpassing the 4,000-member mark.
Johnnie uploaded fire maps and used Google Earth to measure how far the fire was from people’s homes.
The Hog Fire—which burned roughly 9,500 acres—was contained in mid-August. A few weeks later, the larger Sheep Fire threatened people’s homes. This fire—which would burn roughly 29,500 acres—sparked its own demands for community support.
“I felt I wasn’t doing enough with the group,” Johnnie says. “We started letting people know to give us a call if they wanted to do structural protection around homes.”
Johnnie gathered a group of volunteers to clear flammable materials—such as dry grass and pine needles—to create a defensive barrier around homes. The group made barriers around a dozen homes in the wildfire’s path.
As the fire grew, the demand shifted from defending structures to rescuing people and animals. Volunteers broke into separate groups to help evacuate horses, birds, dogs, cats and even some pigs. Volunteers monitored the Facebook group to help dispatch requests and continue posting fire updates.
“Everything was crazy,” Johnnie says. “I started a Facebook group to get info out, and then I am evacuating pigs.”
While working in an evacuation area in Janesville, one member of the volunteer team, Jeremy Paul, insisted on doing one more trip up and down the road. Thanks to a tip from a neighbor, the volunteer group arrived at the home of an 80-year-old woman with a horse, birds and cats. The volunteer group helped her settle into emergency housing at Lassen Community College and helped take care of the animals.
During their fire rescue efforts and with the community’s help, the group evacuated 150 animals. A local gaming shop, Highway to the Gaming Zone in Susanville, temporarily housed birds and cats in its back areas. Locals such as Rita Luallen—who runs Hooves and Angels Inc., a horse rescue and rehabilitation nonprofit—took in large livestock such as horses and pigs.
“It was the first time I had met her,” Johnnie says. “She was a big help.”
The Sheep Fire was contained the second week of September. Once evacuation orders were lifted, volunteers helped return animals to their homes.
The sense of community this group of volunteers created has stuck with Johnnie.
“It was a good feeling inside to meet other people who wanted to help,” Johnnie says. “It made me feel like I was back at home.”
Cowboy 911: Helping Pets and Livestock in Emergencies
Whether they are large or small, rescuing animals is no easy feat. Even a flat tire on a trailer full of livestock can spell disaster.
Cowboy 911 started as a Facebook group in 2018, creating a network of farmers and ranchers to evacuate and house animals displaced by disaster, and to help in other times of need. The group now has more than 43,000 members from around the country, and has helped citizens start chapters in California, Texas, Oregon and even Australia.
“Our goal was to create a system that relieves the chaos in emergencies,” says Jill Pierre, Cowboy 911 president.
Local chapters are equipped with tools to create a disaster management plan for animals. Steps include completing Federal Emergency Management Agency training, creating legal agreements with local government agencies to provide emergency assistance and establishing multiple evacuation sites.
“When an emergency happens, hopefully we will already have the chapter set up and local agencies know we’re there to help,” Jill says.
Donations made to Cowboy 911 help disaster relief efforts of local chapters and communities in need. Hooves and Angels Inc., a horse rescue and rehabilitation nonprofit near Susanville, California, received a donation from Cowboy 911 when housing animals evacuated during the Sheep Fire.
“We may not know each other, but we’re all good people,” Jill says. “There is a major amount of comfort in knowing that you always have someone there to help.”
Learn more about Cowboy 911 at cowboy911.org or in the Facebook group, The Real Cowboy 911.
ABOUT THE SERIES: Pioneer Utility Resources, publisher of Ruralite magazine, spotlights Heroes Among Us each month, sharing the unique stories of volunteers and difference-makers in communities across the Northwest and West. The series, which seeks to inspire community involvement, receives support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust—a private nonprofit foundation serving nonprofits across the Pacific Northwest, including Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.