California Riding Magazine • June, 2014

The Gallop: San Diego Fires
All are safe after May wildfires, but warnings for summer abound and now is the time to prepare!

by Cheryl Erpelding

Patti and Richard Newton hooked up their rig as their home in the Elfin Forest area was threatened by the San Marcos fire.

Last month in San Diego County, a bulldozer at a construction site started off a fire that quickly got out of control. May is normally a month of overcast and foggy weather called "May Gray." But a hot and blustery Santa Ana wind caught the spark just east of San Diego's Rancho Santa Fe and Fairbanks Ranch area and began the first of nine fires within hours of each other to create a disaster area the scope of which hadn't been seen in San Diego since 2007.

Wildfires in California are a big threat to horse owners. Last month's wild fires were no exception as they forced thousands of horses to evacuate, as many of these fires were raging in the more rural parts of the San Diego County. As soon as the fires starting growing, horse owners got the word via traditional and social media. Rawhide Ranch in the Bonsall area was one of many that, via television, radio and social media, put out the call for help. Within moments equestrians from all over posted their availability and traveled to help move horses from burning and at-risk areas.

Tish Quirk was one of the first to evacuate from Rancho Santa Fe to the Del Mar Fairgrounds. Her clients include horses in training, stallions and mares ready to foal. Time Given, owned by Chase and Amy Casson, was one of the mares overdue to foal and she gave birth to this beautiful filly at 6 a.m., the morning after they evacuated. Photo by Tish Quirk.

The Southern California Equine Emergency Evacuation FaceBook Group grew from a few hundred to over a thousand members who quickly posted information about horses needing trailers and locations available to accommodate the evacuated horses. Throughout the busiest day, I constantly re-posted info on the California Riding Magazine Facebook page, the Evacuation's group page, and kept the information coming, as did many others.

Del Mar Fairgrounds was major evacuation center for San Diego horses and livestock as over 900 horses moved in while the fires threatened their homes. Photo by Patti Newton

It was impressive to see the various horse organizations communicate and help each other. Facebook's Brush Fire Partyline/San Diego East County and Brush Fire Partyline/North San Diego County grew over those few scary days as many feared for loss of property and animals.

Ultimately, no horses were lost and even one mare gave birth at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

Some volunteers had a tough time getting through to get their trailers to the horses at risk. But most everyone in the fire zone was able to get the help they needed. In the San Marcos/Escondido fire, some horses weren't able to get out and had to be let loose. Those horses survived and returned to their farm the following day.

Having a huge wildfire this early is a bad sign. Horse owners in this drought-stricken state should put together an evacuation plan. Having your horses tagged, micro-chipped or marked in some way in case someone you don't know ends up rescuing them is important. has some great fetlock bands that help identify your horses.

As we get ready for a summer of dry, fire-friendly conditions, please review these tips that I thought were particularly helpful. There were among many useful Facebook posts shared during San Diego's latest fire odyssey.

Please be prepared and stay safe!

10 Rules to Live by in Evacuations with Horses from Wildfires or Natural Disasters

  1. Teach your horse to load (and tie). And, I mean immediately step into a trailer.
  2. Take at least one bale of hay and a bucket: you never know where your horse is going to end up.
  3. No matter what, if you take your horses or not, make sure you take your proof of ownership/brand inspections. This will help you prove the horses are yours later on. (Photos work in non-brand inspection areas.)
  4. If you cannot take your horse, turn them loose. They have great survival instincts, and it's better than them dying in a locked barn.
  5. If you turn them loose, write your phone number on them in some way. Spray paint/shoe polish, whatever you can find.
  6. If you turn them loose, take their halters off. Imagine all the debris your horse is going to encounter. You don't want them getting caught on it.
  7. If you turn them loose, lock them out of their barn/pen/stall/yard. They will go back.
  8. If you take your horse to an evacuation center, it is still a good idea to have your horse marked in some way. Sometimes evacuation centers have to evacuate.
  9. If you take your horse in a trailer, please tie them if you safely can. I cannot count how many times we were evacuating and found a loose horse we needed to load with ours. If the horses are loose in the trailer, that is a disaster waiting to happen.
  10. If your horse is in a large pasture area, cut the fence in corners and leave gates open. When horses can't find their way in smoke/debris, they will follow fence lines.

For more tips, visit:

California Riding Magazine founder Cheryl Erpelding lives in Descanso, and she and her horses have seen more than their fair share of fires over the years. Her home and loved ones, horses, people and pets, were not at significant risk this time around, so she was able to put her past experience to use in sharing information with fellow horse owners.