California fires claim lives of dozens of horses as communities lie in tatters

San Diego County, which includes Bonsall, is horse country, dotted with vast, opulent ranches in a landscape that evokes Tuscany with palm trees.


                            California fires claim lives of dozens of horses as communities lie in tatters

WARNING: SOME IMAGES MAY BE DISTRESSING, READER CAUTION ADVISED

A line of charred stables running down blackened hills have become graveyards for dozens of horses caught in the raging flames of a southern California wildfire that burned them alive.

"It was hell," said a security employee at the San Luis Rey Training Center in Bonsall, an hour north of San Diego. It was "The worst night of my life."

California fires
Horses that survived the Lilac Fire in their stalls are loaded onto a trailer in the early morning hours of December 8, 2017 near Bonsall, California. Strong Santa Ana winds are pushing multiple wildfires across the region, expanding across tens of thousands of acres and destroying hundreds of homes and structures. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

The employee, who asked not to be identified by name, said that 75 percent of the stables burned at the center, where some 500 elite horses were stabled and trained.

"They're the most highly bred," and in "several barns here the cheapest horse is $250,000."

California fires
Dead horses lie in stalls at Rancho Padilla where 29 horses and numerous other animals were killed in the Creek Fire on December 6, 2017 near Sylmar, California. Strong Santa Ana winds are pushing multiple wildfires across the region, expanding across tens of thousands of acres and destroying hundreds of homes and structures. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Seeing the blaze approaching at high speed, they decided to release the horses to give them a chance to escape.

As the air clogged with smoke the terrified horses neighed and galloped in circles, lost.

California fires
Ranch hand Anthony Martin hoses down stalls where some of the 29 horses and numerous other animals had died in the Creek Fire at Rancho Padilla on December 6, 2017 near Sylmar, California. Strong Santa Ana winds are pushing multiple wildfires across the region, expanding across tens of thousands of acres and destroying hundreds of homes and structures. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

"I was kicked; trampled," the employee said of the rescue efforts, describing how the horses clamored to get back to their stables.

"It's their safety zone," he said. "We had to run them off but they saw the others get in, they're herd animals."

San Diego County, which includes Bonsall, is horse country, dotted with vast, opulent ranches in a landscape that evokes Tuscany with palm trees.

California fires
 (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

But these desert trees, which line the roads of the region, turned into torches overnight into Friday morning, as fire driven by winds gusting upwards of 80 miles (130 kilometers) per hour swallowed whole hills in minutes.

Thousands of firefighters are still battling six major wildfires in California that have destroyed hundreds of structures and devastated tens of thousands of acres of land.

Raining ashes

The blazes cap the worst year on record for fires in California.

Throughout the night the equestrian community banded together to save the horses, with owners and trainers rushing to take the animals to safety in trailers.

The San Luis Rey employee said volunteers were key: "Horse people are wonderful, they've given us everything we need."

California fires
Corrugated steel on collapsed stalls lie on top the the bodies of some of the 29 horses and numerous other animals were killed at Rancho Padilla in the Creek Fire on December 6, 2017 near Sylmar, California. Strong Santa Ana winds are pushing multiple wildfires across the region, expanding across tens of thousands of acres and destroying hundreds of homes and structures. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

The rescue efforts were a tough task, said Ross Fowler, a battalion chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

"It's hard when horses are scared then don't comply -- they are heavy; they can hurt you," Fowler said.

Rebecca Wilson, a 21-year-old trainer, stayed up late into the night to drive horses to safety.

California fires
A cat climbs down from an unburned tree where it had taken refuge near stalls where 29 horses and numerous other animals were killed in the Creek Fire at Rancho Padilla on December 6, 2017 near Sylmar, California. Strong Santa Ana winds are pushing multiple wildfires across the region, expanding across tens of thousands of acres and destroying hundreds of homes and structures. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

"We saved at least 20 horses just with this truck," said Wilson.

"It was raining ashes," she said, adding it was necessary to go quickly through the smoke and darkness as fire trucks came and went.

"A two-year-old had never been in a truck, so it took a lot of patience," she said. "You cannot force a 1,000-pound animal into a trailer truck in traffic in the dark."

The whole night seems surreal," Wilson said. "It's heartbreaking to see the horses we've lost."

 

If you have any views or stories that you would like to share with us, drop us an email at writetous@meawwworld.com