Dozens of horses perished as wild fires destroyed the San Luis Rey Training Center overnight. Owners and trainers scrambled as they described the scene as a war zone.
Because of California’s significant drought the abundance of dry vegetation has created the perfect conditions for several devastating fires.
One of the most recent displays of humanity took place on Thursday, Dec. 7, in San Diego at the San Luis Rey Downs. The San Luis Rey Training Center houses some of the top racing thoroughbreds. Some of these horses were worth more the houses around them.
The sheer quantity of elite horses kept at San Luis Rey Downs is staggering. These facilities were designed to house some 500 horses and were an integral stopping point for horses on their way to other racetracks. Many trainers kept their off-season and up-and-coming horses there.
But when a nearby brush fire took off, it quickly spread to the training facility before the horses could even be evacuated.
The fire started around 11:00 a.m. on Thursday morning and grew into a frenzy, fanned by unusually high winds. By the time there was even a sign of danger, it was verging on too late.
Barns as you might guess, are highly flammable objects. The materials they’re built out of, the straw or shavings used as bedding, and even the hay the horses eat all provide fuel.
While the fire was encroaching on Thursday morning, it wasn’t long before embers set fire to the structures and the trees surrounding them, turning the entire facility into a bonfire.
Toward the beginning, trainers, grooms, and stable hands started trying to load up some of the horses and evacuate them. But the fire did not wait for them, and there were far too many horses to be able to load them all up safely, one at a time.
As these people realized the inevitable, they did the only thing they could do at that point: set the horses loose. If there’s one thing these horses know how to do, it’s run.
But horses like most creatures in danger, tend to stay where they are most comfortable. And yet, despite that, the challenge was to get them out of their stalls in the first place. As you can imagine the scene was struck with chaos, as brave people ran through heavy smoke to let the horses out of their pens amidst the whinnies and shrieks of the terrified creatures.
Most of the horses bolted at the awareness of the danger at hand and formed herds racing around the barns, looking for safety.
One trainer, Cliff Sise, told news outlet KFMB-TV that he’d lost one of his own horses this way. “It was dark, everything was hot and she wouldn’t come out,” he said.
“I opened the pen and tried to get behind her and get her out, and she wouldn’t get out. She burned to death that quick.”
Sise said he saw at least 10 horses meet their demise, and while the official tally is not yet in — since rescue efforts are still continuing — most sources are suggesting that the toll will fall somewhere in the 20-30 range.
Los Alamitos racetrack has put its Friday races on hold to allow time for the distraught owners and trainers to assess and recover.
While the fact that some of these graceful horses met their end in such an unsavory way is heartrending, the fact that many more did not die is all due to the sacrificial actions of some very caring individuals.
There were many heroes that day, risking their lives to try and free as many horses as possible so they wouldn’t all be burned to death.
It will take time to get a total inventory of the loss, but thanks to the work of some good Samaritans this is much less of a tragedy than it could have been.