The night of October 8, as the wind howled outside, Nancy Tallent was jolted awake by the telephone. A friend was calling to warn her about the fires, and as she rubbed sleep from her eyes, Tallent had a dark thought. The coordinator of Sonoma Developmental Center’s equestrian program for 35 years, she realized that the animals at SDC’s Little Farm could be in harm’s way. She got up, got dressed, hitched a trailer to her truck, and headed into the eerie orange glow of the night.
Most of the horses had long since been moved, following the 2015 announcement of SDC’s closure. But a few were still boarded at the facility, and so Tallent loaded them up and took them all to her home in Penngrove.
The horses were spooked, so the operation took the better part of the night.
By daybreak, the magnitude of the situation was coming into focus, and SDC staffers — including Tallent and her husband, Jim — began moving the SDC residents. First, they resettled their charges in buildings at the southern edge of the campus; later, they moved all of them to the emergency shelter at Adele Harrison Middle School.
Tallent worried for the menagerie of creatures left behind at Little Farm, but her human commitments came first.
The Little Farm had been situated on the SDC campus for decades, its animals used therapeutically with residents. The bunnies and birds and llamas and goats were gentle enough to be trusted with the medically fragile residents of SDC, and contact with them was a reliable source of comfort and calm.
Non-residents, too, made use of the farm, with families bringing children out to see the animals there. There was an aviary, a big barn, a tack house and a pasture. It was a pleasant place to kill a few hours, oinking at the big pig or chattering with the parrots.
Tallent’s personal history with Little Farm dates all the way back to 1974, when she brought her own horse there to board. “I was 19 or 20, and my parents were kind of done with keeping my horse, Rusty, so I lent him to SDC’s equestrian program,” Tallent said.
When she spotted a “cute guy” leading Rusty around the corral with an SDC patient in the saddle some years later, Little Farm would even serve as a kind of matchmaker for Tallent’s marriage. That cute guy was, of course, Jim.
But when the fires were raging she wasn’t thinking about that. She’d rescued the horses and secured the safety of patients, and now she needed to hatch a plan to get past the police barricade at Arnold and Madrone, where no one was being allowed through, no-how.
By Tuesday, as the fires gained strength, Tallent was feeling increasingly anxious. On Sunday, when she’d rescued the horses, she felt sure that the fires wouldn’t breach the SDC campus. In fact, she had left a whole barn of valuable tack behind on that night, convinced that moving the horses had been done in an abundance of caution driven by her horse-loving heart.
She pulled up to the barricade in her truck and attached trailer and sweet-talked the CHP officer into letting her through. Slowly, she made her way across campus, noting the strange lifelessness of the place. Cresting the hill above Little Farm, Tallent pitched forward in her seat. The equestrian barn was rubble, the hay barn was gone, and the aviary was a smoldering ruin.