Padilla Ranch and San Luis Rey Downs disasters may have been only part of the Southern California fire toll on horses
LOS ANGELES––Of the estimated 700,000 horses living in California, nearly 60% live in the four-county Southern California region hit by early December wildfires, the largest of which, the Thomas fire raging in the wooded canyons between Santa Barbara and Camarillo, was at this writing still only 35% contained after 12 days.
Five other major fires were reportedly also still blazing.
Not surprisingly, horses are among the most prominent fire casualties.
At sundown on December 15, 2017, only two humans had died––fire engine driver Cory Iverson, 32, of the CalFire agency San Diego unit, killed on December 14, 2017, and Virginia Pesola, 70, of Santa Paula, who died in a car crash while fleeing the flames on December 13, 2017. The October 2017 Napa Valley fires in northern California, by contrast, killed 31 people.
75 horses died in two worst fires
Seventy-five horses, however, died in only the two most serious incidents involving equine facilities, with the toll from others yet to be reckoned.
Twenty-nine horses died at Rancho Padilla in Sylmar, just east of Los Angeles, when the Creek Fire swept down the slopes of Little Tujunga Canyon in the early morning hours of December 5, 2017.
Two days later, on December 7, 2017, the Lilac Fire engulfed the San Luis Rey Downs racehorse training and boarding center at Bonsall, in northern San Diego County. Forty-six horses were killed in that fire, or were euthanized later due to burns and other injuries.
Another horse who had been stabled at San Luis Rey Downs died from severe colic, probably but not definitively linked to the stress of the fire.
Six horses reported missing after San Luis Rey Downs burned were found dead a week later by search teams using multiple drones and a helicopter. Unclear, however, was whether those horses had already been included in the reported death toll.
Altogether, even though the Southern California horse population has declined over the past 30 years from an estimated peak of more than a million in the mid-1980s, more horses are believed to have been evacuated from the 2017 fire zones than during any previous wildfire season, certainly since 2007, when as many as 3,000 horses were displaced from stables in the path of the Witch Creek Fire. That fire razed 247,800 acres, destroying 1,265 homes and 587 outbuildings in eastern San Diego County.
Starting in Ojai on December 4, the Thomas fire alone has now burned 252,500 acres, incinerating 700 homes and more than 200 outbuildings, in a less densely populated region–– which appears, however, to include more horses and horse facilities.
Late on December 14, 2017 the Thomas fire reached the edge of the 240,000-acre area burned by the Zaca Fire of 2007, where firefighters hoped it would find less fuel and lose wind-driven momentum. But another 3,000 acres burned overnight, and were still blazing at sunset.
More than 2,500 other animals in shelters
Thousands of animals other than horses have been displaced by fire evacuations.
“The Camarillo Animal Shelter has opened its doors to more than 400 animals for “safekeeping” during the Thomas Fire, including dogs, cats, horses, ponies, chickens, quail, emu and other species,” reported Joe Curley of the Ventura County Star.
“Ventura County Animal Services had received more than 1,000 displaced animals, 426 of which were being kept in Camarillo, including house pets, horses, ponies, emus, chickens, quail and a pig,” Curley added.
The Santa Barbara Humane Society, Santa Barbara County Animal Services Shelter, Earl Warren Show Grounds, and El Capitan Ranch among them reportedly accommodated about 1,500 animals, expecting to receive more.
Rabbit rescue? Try a thoroughbred without halter!
But, while a video of a young man rescuing a rabbit from flames made national news broadcasts, the most dramatic animal rescue stories involved horses––lots of them, panic-stricken, without halters, who nonetheless were somehow herded into trailers and hauled to safety.
Groom Leo Tapia, 23, “whose Facebook Live video of herds of horses running loose to escape the fire and horsemen (including himself) frantically trying to free as many horses as they could from their stalls [at San Luis Rey Downs] before fire consumed the barns, was shared thousands of times on Facebook [actually more than 300,000 times] and ran on national and local news networks across the country,” recounted Jen Roytz for The Paulick Report, a leading online horseracing magazine.
Casandra Branick forsaw fire
“The barn of Edward Freeman was one of the first to be destroyed by fire,” added Dennis W. Miller in a separate account for The Paulick Report. “Freeman, away on a family visit to his native England, departed comfortable in the knowledge his barn was in the good care of barn manager and exercise rider Casandra Branick.”
Branick and eight grooms “fed, watered, trained and exercised 17 thoroughbred racehorses,” Miller wrote.
“Shortly after 11 a.m.,” Miller continued, “Branick noticed telltale signs of fire on the hilltops to the east. Acting quickly, she alerted her crew and began tranquilizing her charges in anticipation of an evacuation. She ordered bales of hay be watered down and began loading feed and water tubs on the van. Contacting Freeman in England, she recommended evacuating the horses.
Was first to inform Del Mar
“With a green light from her boss, Branick sent the first load to the Del Mar race track,” the nearest designated facility to accommodate horses in time of disaster, “before anyone there knew of the emergency.”
After moving all of Freeman’s horses, with the help of grooms Silvano Vaca, Carlos Osuna and Martin Espinosa, Branick returned to San Luis Rey Downs to rescue two goats, her own and one from a neighboring barn.
“Osuna stayed behind to help at San Luis Rey Downs after the Freeman horses were safely evacuated to Del Mar,” Miller mentioned.
“With the goats delivered to safety,” Miller added, “Branick attempted to return to the track but was blocked by law enforcement. Noticing a veterinarian on foot attempting to gain access to the track,” Branick told the vet to get in, then “drove her car up on the median and managed to enter the facility,” Miller said, “where numerous injured horses were then humanely euthanized.
Trainer in coma
“Returning to the horror of stampeding horses, some on fire, Branick proceeded to render assistance to others. The barn directly behind her lost at least three horses. A trainer [Martine Bellocq] who suffered severe burns trying to save them was airlifted to a hospital, where she was placed in a medically induced coma.”
Branick went on to spend the night inventorying the displaced Freeman horses, who had been left at three different rescue sites.
Martine Bellocq “is doing better,” her husband Pierre Bellocq Jr. told T.D. Thornton of Thoroughbred Daily News on December 9, 2017. “She’s out of the induced coma and is on the respirator. She can’t speak or see right now, but she can hear us apparently, so that’s a little progress. She is still in critical care at the U.C. San Diego Hillcrest [medical center]. She’s has third-degree burns from head to toe, but they’re confident she’s going to make it.”
The Bellocq family had six horses stabled at San Luis Rey Downs, of whom Martine Bellocq saved four.
The scene at Del Mar
Two days later BloodHorse reporter Jeremy Blan described the scene at Del Mar.
“A local doctor advised horsemen to monitor their barn workers for respiratory issues from smoke inhalation and headaches, which could be related to carbon monoxide exposure,” Blan wrote. “Multiple trainers expressed a need for on-site medical care, for both physical and mental ailments, because backstretch workers are unlikely to leave the grounds to seek help.
“Others expressed a need for tack. Several trainers and barn workers lost all or nearly all of their equipment in the fire.”
Passing the hat
The National Horseman’s Benevolent & Protective Association pledged help with the tack problem. Also raising funds for the horses and the workers who lost all their possessions when racetrack accommodations burned were Thoroughbred Charities of America, the California Retirement Management Account [a fund for retired racehorses], the California Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Foundation, Inc., The Stronach Group [a racetrack management company], Santa Anita Park, and the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.
Assistant trainer Leonardo Mora “stepped forward to voice a need for donated funds to be directed to the medical bills for trainers Martine Bellocq and Joe Herrick [and outrider Les Baker], who are still hospitalized and being treated for severe burns,” Blan reported. “Trainers are not covered under workers’ compensation plans.
“Santa Anita’s vice president of marketing, Nate Newby, reassured the horsemen that more than $630,000 raised through online donations would be distributed entirely to help horsemen, backstretch workers, and horses,” Blan continued.
Horses & smoke
An memo from California Horse Racing Board equine medical director Rick Arthur advised trainers to “use caution in returning horses to training that were exposed to smoke and are encouraged not to race horses exposed to smoke at San Luis Rey Downs until after Christmas at the earliest.”
Added Blan, “The advisory also said, if horses from San Luis Rey are entered for races before December 26, they need to have a letter from an attending vet that certifies those horses are ‘unaffected by exposure to smoke’ before they can race. Horses stabled at Del Mar will be restricted to jogging until at least December 13.”
While the numbers of thoroughbred racehorse stabled at Del Mar reportedly held steady at about 260, the population of non-thoroughbreds stabled on the premises rose as high as 600, Blan said.
Locked stalls under investigation
Brittny Mejia of the Los Angeles Times meanwhile reported on December 14, 2017 that the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care & Control had opened an investigation of the Rancho Padilla horse deaths.
“We are actually looking into it and investigating the entire situation,” spokesperson Don Barre told Mejia. “We can’t say anything about the investigation until it’s over.”
Recounted Mejia, “The fire was first reported at 3:43 a.m. on December 5. [Members of the Padilla] family, who own the ranch,” whose horse facilities were built by their father circa 1991, “said they awoke to flames and were instructed by a fire crew to leave,” despite their protestations that the horses would need to be rescued.
“The Department of Animal Care & Control received a request for help at 8:45 a.m.,” Mejia continued. “Animal control officers rescued as many horses as they could, and broke the padlocks off 10 stalls, the department said in a statement. A member of the Padilla family has stated that she told owners who boarded their horses at the ranch not to put locks on their stalls.”
The locks apparently contributed to causing the deaths of the 29 horses. Only 15 of the Rancho Padilla horses survived.
Starting on December 5, 2017, the Creek Fire destroyed 60 homes and 63 outbuildings, and damaged nearly as many, burning more than 15,000 acres.
Just a mile to the north, reported Matthias Gafni for the Bay Area News Group, “About two dozen Contra Costa firefighters,” sent 360 miles south from the northeastern San Francisco Bay area, “surrounded the Wildlife Waystation — an animal sanctuary home to more than 400 permanent animal residents, including chimpanzees, tigers, lions, leopards, bears, wolves and hyenas. About two-thirds of the animals were evacuated. However, some of the larger, more difficult animals had to remain, as the fire burned into the property, eventually circling the isolated 160-acre exotic animal park in the hills north of Highway 210 in Sylmar, in the San Fernando Valley.”
Sanctuary has six fire engines
Wildlife Waystation has had to evacuate before, notably during the 2009 Station Fire, which moved northward and was then turned southeast literally at the fence lines of the DELTA Rescue and Shambala sanctuaries in Acton.
Both sanctuaries include large ponds and keep firefighting equipment on hand.
DELTA Rescue, now with six fire engines, five of them used during the Sand Fire of 2016 and another acquired since then, may have the largest firefighting force anywhere that is maintained chiefly for animal protection.
Many previous fires
The region has had frequent opportunity to rehearse and refine wildfire response over the years, especially since October 1993, when 25 wildfires in 14 days, 19 of them arsons, roared through canyons in seven contiguous counties, menacing communities from Escondido, overlooking San Diego, to Malibu, northwest of Los Angeles.
Those fires razed the Eaton Canyon Nature Center in Altadena, killing at least 40 birds, snakes, and tortoises; forced the evacuation of the Animal Actors of Hollywood rescue ranch, where a panic-stricken young panther and a lioness were shot because they couldn’t be handled safely with the equipment available; and also forced the evacuation of The Condominium, the raptor breeding center belonging to the San Diego Wild Animal Park, then housing 26 highly endangered California condors and four Andean condors.
Seven hundred firefighters saved the San Diego Wild Animal Park itself after a day-long struggle.
Had best disaster plans in U.S.––by 1993 standards
The City of Los Angeles Department of Animal Regulation shelter in Agoura, built to house 125 animals at a time, took in more than 1,400 animals during the 1993 fire crisis, including 93 horses, who were stabled temporarily at the Ventura County Fairground, along with 500 horses taken in by Ventura County Animal Control.
The major animal rescue organizations serving Southern California had already developed what were considered the best disaster response plans in the U.S. at the time. Much effort went into improving and expanding disaster response capacity over the next decade, but drier climate and more suburban expansion into fire-prone, windswept arroyos meanwhile made the region ever more vulnerable.
2003 fire killed horse rescuer
Another explosion of wildfires in October 2003 killed at least 20 people and countless animals between the Mexican border and the Simi Valley, north of Los Angeles. Those fires, the largest of which were called the Cedar Fire and the Old Fire, seared an area larger than Rhode Island.
Equestrian instructor Nancy Morphew, 51, of Valley Center, was among the 13 human victims of the Cedar Fire.
Surviving similar fires in 1991 and 1996, Steve and Nancy Morphew had a fire rescue plan for the 10 Arabian horses they kept on their 11-acre property, and responded quickly, but as she tried to move a trailer into position to load, Nancy Morphew, possibly blinded by smoke, “accidentally drove her truck into a ravine. As she tried to climb out, the fire overtook her,” Steve Morphew told Mike Anton and Anna Gorman of the Los Angeles Times.
“Their daughter Micaela, 24, walked a pregnant horse of theirs four miles to safety,” Anton and Gorman continued. Micaela Morphew “said her mother’s last words to her concerned that horse: She threw Micaela a halter and told her to get the horse out,” Anton and Gorman reported.
The Morphews’ other nine horses saved themselves.