When Kristy Barr and Sarah Montrowl arrived at Morning Star Ranch to check on their horses at 6 a.m. Monday morning, the scene at the Poway boarding facility was worse than they anticipated.“The wind was insane,” Montrowl said. “The horses were freaked out and there were trees falling everywhere.”
It took Montrowl nearly four hours to make the trek from the Garden Road facility down state Route 56 to the Del Mar Fairgrounds. When Montrowl saw the long line of trailers and heard that the Witch Creek fire was headed toward Rancho Santa Fe, she forfeited her space in line and turned around. By 10 a.m. the fairgrounds' 2,400 stables were full.
“We didn't even know if we were going to get in, because the trailers were just all the way down the road,” Montrowl said. “It was worse than Poway in terms of smoke.”
Montrowl and Barr eventually unloaded their horses in a portable corral at Canyonside Park in Rancho Penasquitos, where they sat on a blanket and waited for news.
Across Black Mountain Road at Canyonside Stables, where about 70 horses are boarded, owners in dust masks milled around nervously and listened to a radio broadcast. Almost all of the people there lacked trailers to get their horses out. Meanwhile, they eyed the hills to the north where the Witch Creek fire was decimating Rancho Bernardo 10 miles away.
Being located at the eastern edge of fire-prone Los Penasquitos canyon, their jitters were warranted. Perched above the property across Mercy Road to the south, a line of tract homes was threatened with fire about a year ago. The embankment on the southwestern edge of the canyon remained scorched from a fire in July.
“That was too close for comfort,” said Lani Stasko, who sat tight with her retired saddlebred horse. Since the Cedar fire four years ago, many horse owners have taken steps to prepare for evacuation. Fire protection officials even visited Canyonside Stables to offer preparedness tips, Stasko said.
Yet, Patty Carpenter and Julie Kuck were on the phone trying to locate trailers--the one precaution they were desperately lacking.
“We've already called rescue services and the humane society and the rescue group says we're pretty much on our own because it could take a couple hours until they get here,” Carpenter said. “They're overwhelmed by the requirements to get the horses out, so we're just trying to organize amongst ourselves.”
Carpenter went down a list of potential sites where the horses could be moved, including Parkway Plaza, Fiesta Island and Camp Pendleton. Though Carpenter had crossed the Lakeside Rodeo Grounds off her list, believing it to be full, CityBeat later learned that the grounds had only reached about half of its 300- to 350-animal capacity (during the Cedar fire, about 500 horses were moved there).
“Everything we know is by listening to the radio,” Carpenter said, “and then make a judgment.”
Shortly after 1 p.m. it was announced on the radio that Qualcomm Stadium was accepting horses and livestock. That changed quickly, and many horses were turned away.“That is not a place for large animals,” said Jim Wright, a regional director with the County of San Diego Animal Services. Wright manned multiple horse evacuation sites from the Lakeside grounds via phone and radio. Though there was still room, Wright said people were encouraged to find an alternative place to take their horses, leaving the Lakeside facility for those with no other options--a potential source of the confusion.“We're encouraging the owners… contact your relative, friend, somebody else other than the evacuation site, because that's what's going to make us full,” Wright said. “I have more room as long as I have portable corrals. All those in the back are getting full, and I can only tie so many [horses off] without them injuring each other.”
At the Lakeside grounds, county animal-control officers tagged and photographed rescued horses for later identification by their errant owners.
During the Cedar fire, there was no evacuation plan for animals, Wright said.
“We got smarter,” Wright said. “People are smarter. They're educated now to have an alternative plan [to] not have the government come in and help you. They're helping themselves.”
Meanwhile, back at Canyonside stables, Julie Kuck pointed to a plume of smoke on the horizon. “That doesn't look real good right there,” she said.
At the entrance to Canyonside Stables, Happy Trails Horse Rentals owns another 25 horses that it rents for personal use and wagon rides.
Jessica Averilla of Happy Trails looked after her own 7-year-old black quarter horse, Rio, as she considered where to take the Happy Trails' stock. Though they have a large trailer that could move the horses in two trips, Averilla said she was not sure who could accommodate so many animals.
“If we move, we've got a big load to move,” Averilla said. “It's dangerous to load horses in a trailer and just drive around in circles with them. In this kind of heat when you put them in a hot box and then sit in traffic with them, you stand a chance of getting them sick.”