California Riding Magazine • August, 2008

Tevis Cup Cancelled
Fire season hits early and hard.

by Erin Gilmore

Rarely, if ever, has the famous Tevis Cup been cancelled. The 100-mile endurance race is the most difficult and sought-after competitive distance ride in the United States. It has taken place in and around the heavily forested Sierra Nevada each year for the past 53 years. But, in light of trail and road closures, and coupled with heavy smoke from wildfires burning out of control in the area, on July 9 officials cancelled the 54th running of the race. There are no plans to reschedule the race to a later date.

Horse owners in California are by now resigned to a fire season that seems to begin earlier and last longer with each passing year. Early this summer, a rash of fires in rural areas of Northern California were initiated by freak lightening storms and kept firefighters busy for over four weeks. As soon as one fire seemed contained, another would burst out of control and send residents scattering with whatever belongings they could manage to grab.

Evacuations in five Northern California counties; Butte, Kern, Mendocino, Shasta and Trinity were ongoing due to at least 800 fires that flared up in many remote regions and the populated areas that surround them. The Butte Lightening Complex fire burned throughout Butte County for more than a month, consuming 49,000 acres and bursting out of control on July 8, burning 49 residences in less than 36 hours.

Several hundred miles south, fires threatening the Big Sur area had burned a combined 180,000 acres by mid-July. Those fires, the Basin Complex and Indians fires, took a hefty chunk out of the area’s tourist income, with the closure of Highway 1 during peak tourist season.

A Month of Smoke

Residents in highly populated areas around the Bay Area were affected by a constant influx of smoke in the air for well over a month. Health advisories and warnings were broadcast as winds shifted south and blew the collective smoke across San Francisco and surrounding cities, leaving residents there with a constant campfire-smell reminder of the disasters taking place up north.

The cancellation of the Tevis was the first, and hopefully the last, major equine competition to be cancelled due to the fires this year. Tom Christofk, president of the ride’s host, the Western States Trail Foundation, says the cancellation was a difficult decision. “After in-depth discussion with the U.S. Forest Service, we have decided that any level of risk was not appropriate. Protecting the safety and health of the horses and people involved with this historic event takes precedence over everything else.”

Incidents such as these underlie the importance of preparedness for horse owners in all areas of the state. Hundreds of horse owners in the grassroots communities were forced to evacuate their animals along with their home belongings, but as fires continued to burn, reports from fire areas resounded with one message: Support was abundant for horse owners, and there were always others ready to help.

Santa Barbara Scares

In Santa Barbara County, Georgette Topakas’ horses were evacuated due to threats from the approaching Gap fire, which threatened many barns in Santa Barbara. Although the fire was only 55 percent contained on July 9, and was threatening over 250 homes, Georgette reflected the relief of horse owners everywhere who had been able to safely evacuate their animals. “The only good part of this was seeing how the community rallied for the evacuations,” reports Georgette. “A vet was present tranquilizing horses as needed and helping load; haulers came from everywhere to help; sheriffs were lending a hand...it was a bright spot in a long, dark night.”

As grassroots horse communities continued to mobilize, groups such as the Santa Cruz County Equine Evacuation Group and the Santa Barbara Equine Assistance and Evacuation Team assisted in evacuations, and dozens of offerings of support popped up on the Bay Area Equestrian Network (www.bayquest.com), a popular community-based website that supports much of California. O.H. Kruse Grain and Milling in El Monte provided support to 20 victims of the Gap fire in the form of donated feed. Last year the same company donated over four tons of feed to victims of the horrific San Diego County fires.

Coming into the hottest months of the summer and “peak” times for fire season, horse owners in every part of the state can do best by their horses with an evacuation plan and emergency supplies on hand. Diligent awareness of fire conditions and a stockpile of information have proven time and time again to be the best fire deterrent for horse owners.

Look up the contact info for your area’s equine or large animal disaster group and keep the information at the barn. Consider affixing your horse’s name and your contact info to a leather halter with a dog tag, and keep it in a safe place near your horse’s stall. Visit www.plumasfiresafe.org/equine for more helpful tips in fire preparedness, and if there is a fire in your area, check www.fire.ca.gov for updated status reports and fire maps. Fire season has only just begun, but preparing for the worst and reaching out in your community are the best measures to take in keeping our horses safe.

Erin Gilmore is a freelance reporter based in Northern California. She can be reached at callierin@aol.com.