IN THE FACE OF FIRE
During one of Oregon’s most intense wildfire seasons, flames raged, first turning the sky red and then black with thick smoke.
Marie Heppner, Lake Oswego resident and veterinary technician at Animal Care Group of Lake Oswego, remembers the driving toward the haze and bright flames, instead of turning around. She was on a rescue mission with her boyfriend and friends to save as many animals as possible in areas with Level 2 and Level 3 evacuation orders. Level 2 means to be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice, and Level 3 means leave immediately.
“It was unreal. Everything was red. It went from grey to red to just pitch black. The red was scary enough but driving further in and seeing black everywhere was unnerving,” Heppner said. “It was hectic. Fires are not something I have dealt with rescuing animals before. That was a new experience, and it was high stress.”
Heppner, who splits her time between Lake Oswego and Columbia County (she has a barn in St. Helens where she boards her horses), has rescued and cared for animals her whole life.
Heppner said she would pick up strays and “random creatures” that needed help. She’s also been working in the veterinary industry for the last 22 years. “Working in the veterinary industry helps fuel that passion,” Heppner said. Animals she’s rescued over the years include horses, sheep, dogs, cows and cats. Usually, she takes in animals from people who can no longer care for their animals, if the animals have babies that can’t be cared for, or if an animal is in a dire environmental situation or up for slaughter.
“One kitten I found had gotten all chewed up from something. Her hind leg was shattered,” said Heppner, adding that fellow veterinarians helped nurse the cat back to health and it’s now thriving and healthy. “They’re just so scared and physically and mentally depleted when they come in that I can usually take them out on the farm and give them a nice relaxing place to rehabilitate and get healthy again.”
Heppner said nine times out of 10, she usually ends up keeping the animals. “I don’t want to put them through another life change,” she said.
Heppner also works for Lavender Equine Rehabilitation and Veterinary Services in Canby, so when the fires hit close to home, she couldn’t sit back and do nothing.
Though she’s unsure of the exact number of animals she rescued during the height of the recent wildfires, Heppner said she worked with her boyfriend and friends day and night to load animals in danger onto trailers and into trucks to transport them to locations that could house them.
Heppner coordinated evacuation efforts, whether she was on the scene or off. Two Facebook groups appeared during the wildfires, and Heppner said she would post on both sites that she had trailers in a specific location and would ask if anyone needed help. People would then comment on their location, so Heppner could prioritize who needed to evacuate the quickest.
Heppner was in touch with people who said they had to evacuate but left an elderly horse behind. The fire was estimated to be 30 minutes away, and so was Heppner. Heppner said they showed up to the ranch in time and rescued the horse, Blaze, which she ended up keeping and caring for.
Heppner started a GoFundMe (https://shrtm.nu/zsQF) campaign to help raise money to care for the 30-year-old horse whose teeth — which he barely has any of — and back need special attention.
“Our goal is to get enough in donations (so) we can pay for boarding and help offset those feed costs,” said Heppner, adding that she is selling homemade halters on the side and is donating sales through Halloween to Blaze’s care as well. Wendy Thompson, chief administration officer at Animal Care Group of Lake Oswego, said she is proud of Heppner and that she is a good example to show clients how much their workers are dedicated to caring for their animals.
“When everybody was running from those fires, she was running into them to save those animals,” Thompson said. “In the veterinary industry where we work, this is not a job, it’s a lifestyle, and when we leave our jobs, we don’t leave our love and concern for animals at the door.”
After reflecting on her experience, Heppner said she wants to help out more and continue rescuing animals. “It definitely has shown me that in the face of a natural disaster, I would like to do more of that. They come on so fast, and people who have a lot of livestock and animals don’t have the transportation to get them all out,” she said. “I’m fortunate enough to have trucks and trailers and friends with trucks and trailers that are more (than) willing to come help.
“It was just great to see so many people step up and help and just get things organized and make it easier for everybody. So that was really great.”