When Maurita Strait and her family arrived home Tuesday evening, everything looked normal.
The front door was locked, the plants were just where they left them, even the chickens and ducks were in their coup.
The only thing out of place was their beloved horses, Flicka and Cutie Pie, were not in their stall.
The horses normally graze in a small field near the creek behind Strait’s two-story wood home. Today all that sits by the creek is the family’s two quads, which were moved closer to the water in hopes they wouldn’t burn up.
After a few tense moments of frantic searching, the horses were spotted in a neighbor’s yard anxiously stomping about waiting the family’s return.
This was the first time Strait had seen her Whispering Pines home since Sunday, when she was forced to leave in a mad dash as the Water Wheel Fire pounded on her community’s doorstep.
“I am so grateful to be home,” she said. “You have all these thoughts when you’re away, like what will you find.”
“I was prepared to find some dead animals,” Strait’s daughter Julie Balzano said.
However, Morgan Ellenburg, Strait’s granddaughter, declared every dog, duck and bunny was still there and living.
With all of the animals accounted for, the family stood around the yard, marveling that they were home and everything was OK.
A few days earlier, it was a different scene, with Strait dashing around the home grabbing clothes, food and important documents.
Without enough time to trailer the horses and catch the flock of birds, the family was forced to open open all of the animals’ gates and set them free, hoping they could outrun the fire if it came close.
“I asked my husband right before he died what I should do with the horses (if a fire came) and he said I had to open the gates,” Strait said. “I figured if they were gone (when we returned), I wasn’t meant to have them — I guess it’s a sign.”
A large patch of stomped ground right outside of their pen, proved Flicka and Cutie Pie did not stray far from home even with the gates open wide.
Strait said the horses were nervous when the smoke came rolling over the hill, however, she had no choice but to leave them behind.
Luckily, firefighters spotted the horses wandering around the home, corralled them into a neighbor’s yard and gave them food and water.
“I am so thankful to the firefighters,” she said.
Flicka and Cutie Pie seemed as relieved to see the family, as they were to see them.
The only thing that upset the reunion was the Roundup photographer’s flash, which spooked Flicka unceasingly. At one point, Flicka made a mad dash to get by photographer Andy Towle nearly running over several small dogs wandering down a dirt road. Luckily, no dogs were injured.
This isn’t the first time Strait has lived through a forest fire. In 1990, the family was evacuated for the Dude Fire.
“I remember ash falling everywhere,” she said.
This time, there wasn’t a spot of ash anywhere.
Michelle Ellenburg, Strait’s other daughter, who lives down the street from her mother, was also startled when she was told to evacuate her home.
“I had just seen smoke out the front window,” she said. “I called our neighbor and she freaked out when she saw smoke over our roof. It was so scary to see. I grabbed a few clothes and left.”
Ellenburg said she was ill-prepared to evacuate her home.
In the future, she would be more prepared with a list of items to grab for her family and their pets.
“We will have a plan in the future.”