A 700-acre California wildfire that erupted on the morning of May 13 caused more than 20,000 homes to be evacuated in north San Diego County including many horse farms such as Steffen and Shannon Peters’ Arroyo Del Mar facility.
The Peterses joined with staff, other trainers and friends to move 65 horses to the Del Mar racetrack, a move they’ve performed once before in 2007 due to wildfires.
“Steffen and I are still at home,” said Shannon on Tuesday night. “We’ve packed up some stuff, and we’re watching the news, but we’re going to stay as long as we can. We’re fighting the fire as best we can, having the farm staff watering down the property. That way, if we do get embers, hopefully they won’t spark anything.”
They began moving horses before the evacuation orders came because they could see the flames and smoke from their home.
“We’re in a valley, so there’s only one way in and out, which is why we’re always erring on the side of the caution,” said Shannon. “We back up to open space, which is wonderful, but it’s exactly where the fire is.”
Shannon expressed gratitude to all the people who immediately pitched in to help move the horses and take care of the farm. “It’s unbelievable the amount of people who showed up with a trailer,” she said.
The blaze erupted for unknown reasons about 10:40 a.m. As of Tuesday evening, it was less than 5 percent contained.
Update: As of May 14, Grand Prix dressage riders Christine Traurig and Guenter Seidel had also evacuated their horses from Albert Court in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.
"When Albert Court got the notice to evacuate, the sky was filled with dark smoke clouds, and smoke ash was falling. They evacuated all 35 horses in 20 minutes," said Traurig. "We first headed to [the Del Mar Horse Park], but it was already full. Horse trailers and vans were lined up down Villa de Valle Street to get into Del Mar.
Although the evacuation notice was lifted, Seidel and Traurig decided to stay a bit longer in order to make sure the fire is contained.
"We’re anxious to go home but still concerned about fires flaring up, with the strong winds and high heat. Right now the horses are content," said Traurig.
The Peterses have so far remained at home, but their horses are still at the Del Mar fairgrounds. "The winds are up to 60 mph again, so we are holding steady at the moment," said Shannon.
Although the Bernardo fire is now 25 percent contained, it's burned more than 1,550 acres so far. More than 350 firefighters are battling the blaze.
Update: As of May 15 nine separate fires had sprung up in the greater San Diego area, burning more than 9,000 acres. However, many horse owners were given the all clear to return to their farms as the winds died down. The Peterses finished bringing 65 horses home to Arroyo Del Mar about mid-day with no damage to their property.
Tish Quirk, who has an active hunter/jumper breeding farm in Carlsbad, Calif., said they evacuated 40 horses total including breeding stallions, pregnant mares, and mares with new foals at their sides to the Del Mar Racetrack.
“After being up all night and getting everyone settled in, at dawn I delivered a new foal here in the evacuation site," said Quirk. "Appropriately enough, that one is a race horse baby. It’s a filly and a big baby, long-legged and healthy. The only hard part is that we weren’t in a foaling stall. We were in an adobe 12' by 12' stall. I had wonderful help from a couple of great horsemen. This is not one I could have done alone.”
Quirk was waiting to bring horses back to her farm, as she wanted to check the air quality and keep an eye on the reports of fires that are still nearby.
“I’m being very cautious about moving out because I don’t want to go home and then find out I have to turn around and come back,” she said.
“Full credit to the Southern California horse community that pulled together to help each other out," she added. "People I had never met arrived with trailers.”
Update: As of May 16, Lisa Baldassari, barn manager for top show jumper Hap Hansen, reported that they’re bringing 50 horses home to their Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., farm.
“We’re shipping them back like Noah’s ark, two by two,” said Baldassari.
She said they tried to evacuate before the official call because of the large number of horses, but the Del Mar Fairgrounds wasn’t open yet. “By the time they called us, it was complete chaos,” she said. “We decided to evacuate as soon as we got a call back from the Fairgrounds that we could go.”
The fire came so close to the farm that the fire department actually used their barn as a staging area.
But now they’ve been given the all clear to return with no damage to the farm. “Del Mar was great to go into,” said Baldassari. “We were able to keep all our 50 pretty close together. Some people weren’t as lucky as we were.”
Nine fires have destroyed at least eight houses, and one badly burned body was found in a transient camp in Carlsbad, Calif., as a result of the blazes.
The fires, which began on Tuesday, May 13, have caused more than $20 million in damage and spread across 10,000 acres. Unusually high temperatures, soaring to 100 degrees, have made controlling the fires more difficult, but cooler weather is supposed to be on the way.
The 350-acre Del Mar Fairgrounds and Racetrack served as a safe harbor for horses that needed to evacuate from fire danger in San Diego County. The backstretch area in the off-season has approximately 1,600 stalls; during summer racing they increase that number by about 500 or so temporary stalls.
As of May 14, approximately 700 horses had been brought to the Del Mar Fairgrounds and the nearby Del Mar Horse Park, a stabling and training facility run by state personnel about one mile inland from the Fairgrounds that can hold up to 200 horses.
“Horses are now starting to be returned back home and the number is currently dropped to 600,” said Mac McBride, director of media for the Del Mar Fairgrounds. “It is expected to be reduced even more today.”
With additional reporting by Kelly Sanchez and Lindsay Graham.