It ain't much, really, in the scheme of things-still, for a small army of determined men, women and children, it was the world, and worth risking their lives. While the biggest complaint of those living nearer to the coast was bad air last week, the story of 110 horses represents a microcosm of a community, just one of thousands of life-altering tales that will be told to grandchildren years from now. Some will tell stories of miraculously being spared the brutal fire's wrath; others will talk about the kindness of strangers and their new appreciation of life and loved ones.
It was 3 a.m. when they first got the call about a fire over the hill near Harrah's casino in Valley Center. By 8 a.m., Dolly Anderson, owner of two of the 110 horses stabled at Showcase Horse Center in Escondido was on site to help and protect her horses, Dakota and Bella.
One week after the fire, driving the steep winding roads back to the ranch, tears welled up in her eyes. "This makes me sick," whispered Anderson. "It's really hard to see."
Crews were still getting the power back on. Men in hardhats littered the blackened area, some on ladders mending melted utility wires, some directing traffic on the rural two-way roads. Either side of what was once a lovely country drive is a scorched grayscale landscape, more like the remnants of a lava spill than what was once grass and trees.
The Paradise fire came right to the very edge of the road, charring and sometimes destroying the wood guardrails. It looks like a nuclear bomb went off.
Showcase horse trainer Jen Swenson was in Lakeside Sunday morning, helping a friend deal with the Cedar fire. By the time she raced back to Escondido, authorities wouldn't let her near the stables.
"I almost got arrested for fighting with a police officer to try to get up here with my truck and trailer," said Swenson, who owns five horses. Meanwhile, Anderson and several others had already arrived and were watching as the fire surrounded the valley.
"The whole sky was on fire and there was so much smoke. We knew it was closing in and we had 110 horses still here. They kept saying "This is the last call for your body to go without your horses,' and nobody would leave their horses. We all stayed," said Anderson. "No one said a word, but the horses were freaking out."
Sue Schindler, owner of Showcase, never considered leaving without the animals. "They're family," she said. "I didn't care if the barn burned down. I didn't care if the house burned down. I need my dad, my horses and my animals, and that's how everybody out there felt."
Finally, Liz Sherman, a friend of Schindler, was able to talk officials into allowing a caravan of about 30 waiting trucks and trailers to make the dangerous trek up the hill to evacuate the horses.
"People came out of the woodwork, people who knew of our place or knew of somebody who knew of our place. Just huge heroics," said Schindler, still emotional from the exhausting week. Many people from Valley Center heard about the situation and just showed up with their truck and trailer to help.
"We waited and waited and waited," Swenson said. "The fire was on both sides of us, and smoke ahead of us, and I thought, We're going to die. There's no way we're going to get our horses out of there. Finally they gave us the go ahead and we went through, and fire was literally hitting our windshield.
"It was crazy," she added with a nervous laugh. "I never felt more near death."
The horses were shuttled to various evacuation centers around the county, including Equestrian Centers International, Forest Hills Farm, Aeire Park, Cloverdale Stables and the Del Mar Fairgrounds. All but 11 horses managed to make it into one trailer or another. Those left behind were "problem loaders," horses that wouldn't get into the trailers.
"The hardest thing to do was to leave those 11 horses," Schindler said.
However, three brave souls decided at about 8 p.m. Sunday to return for the horses left behind. "Liz and Scott Sherman and C.J. Jasieniecki went up there and got seven of them into trailers and they got out by the skin of their teeth," said Schindler. "They had to drive under hot electric lines with two inches of clearance." The remaining four horses were rescued the next morning.
Swenson spent most of the week sleeping in her trailer at the Del Mar Fairgrounds parking lot so she could feed and care for her horses. According to officials there, the fairgrounds took in more than 1,000 animals, including 400 horses, llamas, goats, sheep, seven ducks and a bull.
One week later, horses were being brought back home to Showcase, some still nervous and whinnying, others rolling happily on their backs in their stalls. The entire perimeter of Showcase has been torched, yet somehow the fire was stopped at the property line. Even the mailbox, burned at its base, remained standing.
"I mean, tell me God wasn't with us here," said Anderson as she greeted Rocky, the compound dog, who also managed to escape danger.
"I'm so grateful-you really know the character of people at a time like this," Schindler said. "I thank them all. Everybody risked their lives for these horses. We were very, very lucky. "