By Sharon Bernstein
(Reuters) - The acrid smell of smoke borne on hurricane-strength winds greeted horse trainer Rebecca Cushman before dawn, her phone ringing repeatedly as people frantically sought help saving their animals from California's deadly wildfires.
It was still dark on Monday morning when Cushman, 41, set out from her farm west of the conflagration, towing a four-horse trailer behind her white Dodge pickup truck.
She worked all day and into the night, loading four horses at a time from fire-ravaged farms and ranches in Sonoma and Napa counties, taking the animals back to her farm in West Petaluma before going out for more.
By Thursday, she had helped rescue 48 horses, several cows and even some yaks in the bucolic vineyard and farm country north of San Francisco hit by the state's deadliest wildfires in nearly a century.
"We have dogs, goats, guinea fowl, chickens, ducks, donkeys, miniature horses and horses at our farm right now," Cushman said on Thursday. "I just finished helping load yaks and cows."
Firefighters began to gain ground on Thursday against blazes that have killed at least 31 people in Northern California and left hundreds missing amid mass evacuations in the heart of the state's wine country.
Animals are difficult to rescue in disasters like California's fast-moving wildfires, as their owners must often choose between staying behind to care for them or fleeing to protect their own lives and those of their family members.
Some animals, including many rescued by Cushman, found refuge at privately owned farms outside the fire zone. Others were sheltered at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa.
The first calls there for help came in at about 12:30 a.m. on Monday, as winds of up to 75 miles per hour (121 km per hour) whipped fires throughout the state into dangerous conflagrations, said fairgrounds spokeswoman Leasha LaBruzzi.
By Thursday, the fairgrounds housed more than 300 horses, LaBruzzi said. It had also become a temporary home to 200 people who fled the fires with their pets.
Santa Rosa resident Christy Gentry, 43, who was staying at the fairgrounds, spent Monday morning helping round up and rescue horses at Mark West Stables, where she works, near her home.
She and her husband, Jeff, have no cellular service at their home, and their landline was knocked out by high winds on Sunday night, so they were fast asleep when the fires began.
They were awakened at midnight by the stable's assistant trainer pounding on their bedroom window.
They ran to help evacuate the 26 horses that board at the stable. Christy Gentry's job was to race out to the pastures, the sky black except for flames licking over the top of the mountain, bearing carrots to persuade anxious horses to come to the barn.
One, a dun-colored draft horse named Duncan, never liked getting into horse trailers, and he was particularly resistant that night.
As trainers and horse-haulers moved the animals, volunteers brought feed and hay. Cushman asked for contributions to her account at a local feed store, and quickly raised $8,000.
Exhausted, with a headache from the smoke, Cushman said on Thursday the size and unpredictability of the fires made rescues more chaotic than in past blazes.
She rushed to get to one property only to find the roads blocked. "We were later able to get a police escort to get those three horses out," she said.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California; Editing by Peter Cooney and Lisa Shumaker)