Racing the Fires of Hell

It was a scene right out of Armageddon. The smoke was thick enough to cut with a knife. Scorching flames were jumping roads and creeks, devouring whole neighbourhoods and cutting off one of only two exits out of the city.

As news of the mandatory evacuation order blasted from radios, people were racing out of neighbourhoods that were soon consumed by the fire.

Then there were the horses. Treasured companions trapped in the path of the devastation; desperate owners trying to get them out.

Some had no choice but to saddle up and ride. One such woman was Karley Kenny. The photo of her riding her horse and leading two others at a ground-eating trot through the smoke and flames of downtown Fort McMurray went viral. The photo was dramatic enough; the rest of the story makes your blood run cold. Kenny had a mere half hour to load her horses and get out of the Clear Water Horse Club.

“We were almost out of downtown and headed up Beacon Hill,” she says in an interview. “The fire was at its peak and moving fast. One minute it was 30 feet away — less than a minute later it was 10 feet away. It started to cross the road in front of me and I panicked.”

This image of Karla Kenney rescuing her horses—Cowboy, Diva and Shadow—from the flames of Fort McMurray went viral

The horsewoman whipped a U-turn, unloaded her horses in the unbearable heat and smoke and together they rode for their lives. “I felt like no matter how fast I ran it’s not going to be fast enough,” says the still traumatized Kenny. Not knowing where to go, hours later Kenny and her exhausted horses eventually ended up in a warehouse in the Taiganova area.

“Playing through my mind over and over was if anything bad happens I was doing what I loved,” says Kenny. Her horses are now safe in a pasture west of Edmonton. Kenny wasn’t the only woman forced through circumstances to ride her horse to safety. Teenager Jada Polem saddled up her mare and rode alongside snarled traffic on the only route left out of town. The day before the Polem family had moved their three horses to safety. Then the winds shifted, putting the animals in danger once more.

“We were waiting for trailers to come back to pick up my horse, but it became impossible for them to get through,” says the 16-year-old. Polem’s father put the young horses in their trailer, and then decided she could ride six-year-old Mya alongside their truck and trailer in the slow-moving traffic. The air was “super smoky,” she said. “It looked like it was raining, but it was ash.”

Jada Polem riding her horse, Mya, along the only safe route out of Fort McMurray

The scenario unfolding was “intimidating,” not only for the people, but also for the horses. People driving out of the city seemed shocked to see her on horseback, she said.

“Everyone was really good about it. If I needed to cross the road, they’d yield and let me cross.” It took the teenager about three hours to ride her mare the 15-kilometres to safety.

Across the West, and around the world, help and donations are pouring in to help the victims. From everyone here at Cowboy, and from all our readers, a heartfelt thanks to the first responders and firefighters whose herculean efforts are helping stem the devastation, and also to the thousands who have opened their homes and pastures to provide a safe haven for those in need. Our thoughts and prayers are with you all.

Sources: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, The Western Star, Karley Kenny