Visibility inside the McKinley Fire zone was at about a car’s length in front of Matanuska-Susitna Borough animal control officer Darla Erskine as she drove through smoke looking for a lost dog Monday evening.

“Mat-Com called me and asked me where I was at and I was like, ‘I don’t know, I’m in the fire zone somewhere,’ and boom, all of a sudden, there’s the trooper and there’s the dog,” she said.

Erskine had a strong hunch she knew which farm the dog was from. She’d been there before. The next day, she and fellow officer Lea Kahler decided to go back in and look for any other animals who might have survived.

“We knew the fire ripped through there pretty good, but we were hoping — because I knew that this farm had a very large cleared off area — that it was possible that they could be safe,” Erskine explained.

Another smoky drive down a flaming tree-lined road led them to the farm.

“There she was! Whinnying,” she said.

Ebony, a friendly brown pony, ran up to the officers, ready to follow them to safety.

Mat-Su Borough Animal Control Officers Darla Erskine (left) and Lea Kahler (right) rescued Ebony the pony from the McKinley Fire zone Tuesday (Photo Courtesy: Mat-Su Borough Animal Shelter)

“We were looking around for the other animals and we couldn’t find them, and then the wind kicked up. Once the wind kicked up, the smoke kicked up and we knew we better get out of there,” Erskine said.

Kahler said trees were falling down around them as they tried to figure out how to bring Ebony back. With their trailers in use elsewhere, the only choice was to walk Ebony out of danger.

“She did great,” said Kahler. “There were some pretty scary moments there where trees were falling and firefighters were coming out of the woods with big saws and whatnot on their backs. She got a little skittish, but we made it all the way to Sheep Creek Lodge.”

On Wednesday, Ebony seemed content in a pen outside the Mat-Su Animal Shelter. Her owner has been notified she’s okay, and arrangements are being made for her long-term care.

Ebony the pony is temporarily staying at the Mat-Su Borough Animal Shelter after officers rescued her from the McKinley Fire. (Heather Hintze / KTVA)

Kahler, who’s been on the job for about a month, said these rescues are what she signed up for.

“They don’t tell you specifically, ‘Yeah, you’re gonna walk into a fire and rescue a horse,’ but there was never a moment where I wouldn’t have done exactly what we did,” she said.

Erskine said another animal control officer was responsible for the rescue of 15 dogs over the weekend. The shelter has a map of licensed kennels and when calls went unanswered as the fire threatened the area, “Bam! They went flying up there."

While it can be difficult for people to understand how someone would leave without their pets, Erskine knows it is often the nature of animals to flee or hide when faced with danger.  

“When it comes down to it, when you have, like, literally seconds to leave, you don’t even have time to grab anything. The fire's right there coming at you,” she explained.  

The Mat-Su Borough Animal Shelter has well over 100 cats right now and is hoping to make room for more as pets are displaced by the McKinley Fire. (Heather Hintze / KTVA)


Animal shelter director Kirsten Vesel said the facility is “drowing” in cats and seeing an influx of dogs too. This week, they’re waiving the $35 impound fee, hoping to clear out some space for more animals who might need to stay there due to the fire.

She says they also need donations of the following items:

  • Small bags of dog and cat food
  • Kitty litter
  • Litter scoopers
  • Litter boxes
  • Leashes
  • Collars
  • Cat and dog bowls

Vesel said donations should be dropped off at the animal shelter at 9470 East Chanlyut Circle in Palmer.

If people know of an animal that needs help, they’re asked to call the shelter at 907-761-7501 and leave a detailed message with contact information, an address and the pet’s information.  

Vesel says the shelter is responding whenever it can as fast as it can. "If it stays this hot and the wind keeps blowing, I mean, it could be — who knows. It worries me. It’s an enormous responsibility that’s on our shoulders to somehow help.”

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