November 2017 - The Gallop: Red October

Firestorms leave heartbreak & heartening stories in their wake, and a long, costly road to recovery.

by Kim F. Miller

The night of Saturday Oct. 7 was a happy one for California horse people. Local favorite Mandy Porter had just won the Longines FEI World Cup class at the Sacramento International Horse Show at the Sacramento area’s Murieta Equestrian Center. Equally popular Californians Jenni McAllister and Richard Spooner were right behind her on the winner’s circle and spirits were high through the night of celebration that followed.

Canyon Fire 2 poised to move into Peacock Hill Equestrian Center.

Sunrise Horse Rescue pasture shelters blown by 40-70mph winds that exacerbated the North Bay fires.

Twenty-four hours later, it was urgent concern and actions as flames erupted 100 miles to the west, where the Wine County/North Bay fires began their terrible trajectory. On Monday, Oct. 9 Southern California had its own fiery concerns as the Canyon Fire 2 erupted in Orange County.

For lack of the reportorial army necessary for a comprehensive account of all the fires’ impact on the California horse industry, we’ve focused on an evacuation in each end of the state. Both are remarkable examples of horse people – and “some regular guys in business suits” – coming to each other’s aid, often putting themselves at great risk.

A Northern California Story

Eleven days after the first flames of the Tubbs and Atlas fires in Santa Rosa and Calistoga reared their ugly red heads, Sunset Horse Rescue founder Lisa O’Connor saw the region’s first scrap of blue sky. Even better, there was a 100 percent chance of rain forecast for that night, Thursday Oct. 19. By then those original two of what became at least 10 Wine Country fires were mostly contained and Lisa had her first chance to take a deep breath.

Every minute of every day before that, however, was an unending stretch of harrowing decisions, heroic efforts, heartbreak and inspiring stories that are familiar to the thousands affected by California’s unprecedented outbreak of wildfires last month.

The firestorm in Northern California’s North Bay Area began Sunday night, Oct. 8. It was severely exacerbated by high winds that carried embers and sparks long distances in erratic directions, igniting more fires and causing complete unpredictability about where they would arise next.

Preceding the mandatory evacuation of the Calistoga area where Sunrise’s horses live at the Tamber Bey Winery property, Lisa and her team agonized over their best course of action for their own horses. Simultaneously, they contributed to widespread efforts to help evacuate other horses under immediate threat. The Sonoma County Horse Council’s extensive spreadsheet of volunteers, including their horse handling and hauling equipment and experience, was one of several life-savers. It’s a very long list, but likely represents only a portion of those who dropped everything to help.

Tubbs fire

Smoke from the Tubbs fire at Sunset Horse Rescue.

“Of course, we tried to assess the situation with the Tubbs and Atlas fires,” Lisa recounts. “These two enormous fires on either end of Calistoga Valley had ignited within 10 minutes of each other. We tried to monitor where would be the best place to go, and wondered if the fires in our area were subsiding, and were gaining elsewhere, maybe it’s best to shelter in place.”

As a rescue operation, Sunrise had the added complication of considering horses with physical and mental health issues, making the evacuation decision even weightier. By the time of the mandatory evacuation order on Wednesday, Oct. 11, the smoke was so bad they would have evacuated anyway.

Sunrise is located on Tubbs Lane, right next to Blossom Creek Farm, and the two entities worked together to save their horses. “Our friend Chuck Darrell and Blossom Creek Farm owner Valerie Fish haltered our horses and Chuck, along with our Sunrise volunteer team on the ground there with Grayson Broyles and Doug Scranton, walked two horses, GG & Dusty, down Highway 128 away from the flames to safety at Chuck’s home a half-mile down the road.

“They continued on with truck and trailer to Blossom Creek Farm to try and help the horses there,” Lisa continues. “What they did that night with the flames encircling Blossom Creek Farm is nothing short of heroic. Along with the assistance of a volunteer firefighter from a nearby area, they moved Blossom Creek’s 14 horses out of the barn and into the arena as that was the only possible defensible space on the property. There was no time to get them off property and this was the only hope.” Flames literally encircled the property, but the stable miraculously survived while structures on adjacent lots burned to the ground.

After walking and running horses out of Irvine Regional Park after the Canyon Fire 2 forced closure of the Park entrance, volunteers ready them for trailers waiting in an impromptu staging area in an Albertson’s parking lot.

After that, the team, including Vernon Pride, rushed to Sunrise where the rest of its horses waited among shelters that had been blown down by the 40-70 mph winds. Some horses were moved into the Blossom Creek arena and some to a relatively safe pasture there while flames raged behind Tubbs Lane. Two horses – one blind and one extremely agitated – were trailered off the property immediately. Volunteer haulers later moved Sunrise’s 20 horses out of danger.  The Valley Brook Stables in Napa and the Napa Valley Horsemen’s Association facility were the initial destinations, although Valley Brook Stables later had to be evacuated. Ultimately, the Sunrise horses wound up at Sunset Ridge Equestrian Center in Martinez, which Lisa believes took in about 170 horses when all was said and done. “The family that owns it has been amazing in taking everybody in.”

Sunset Ridge Equestrian Center initially accepted donations to put toward the costs of housing the evacuated horses, then later updated its Facebook post to say that their needs were met and any further donations would be sent to Sunrise Horse Rescue.

Their generosity typified that of countless horse owners and enthusiasts. “There were so many acts of heroism starting that night and that have continued through this crisis,” Lisa says. There were miracles, too. Like the fact that all of their horses loaded onto trailers without issue in a frantic situation and that none of them were injured when their shelters blew down all around them in their home pasture while waiting for help to arrive.

Along with firefighters and other professional emergency responders, veterinarians, organized equestrian association members and individuals simply showing up, the horse community worked untold miracles from the instant the fires broke out. With an estimated 200,000 acres in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties destroyed as of Oct. 19, the miracle working will continue in the long recovery road ahead.

Toward that end, please see the How To Help sidebar, for resources on where your donations of money, supplies and/or time can be most useful.

A Southern California Story

“People who own horses are usually pretty level-headed,” reflects Robin Bisogno, owner of the Peacock Hill Equestrian Center. That was a very good thing when it came time to evacuate 172 horses before the Canyon Fire 2 fire that destroyed 85 percent of the public boarding facility took them, too. “At 10:30 a.m., we were told to evacuate and by 11:30 the first trailers were pulling out of here.”

“Being where we are, we’ve always had a plan in place,” Robin explains. Peacock Hill is located in Orange County’s Irvine Regional Park, a lovely undeveloped area in the hilly stretch between Orange and Riverside counties. Lovely, that is, until a fire breaks out.

Twenty-five miles per hour winds wreaked havoc to even the best laid emergency plans on Monday, Oct. 9. The Park is normally a Fire Department staging area and had been as recently as three weeks prior in the first “Canyon Fire” nearby. But this time “there were no fire trucks or police on site,” Robin recounts.  Those already on site that morning and the earliest responders to alerts for help with a possible evacuation were able to get many horses off the property.  But when winds accelerated the fire’s advance, the Park was closed and several in-bound responders were not allowed to enter. The remaining 50-60 horses who hadn’t been hauled out by then were hand-walked, sometimes hand-run, out to an Albertsons parking lot outside of the park about a half-mile away.

Attempting to direct the traffic, Robin was appalled at having to fend off “lookie-loos” who clogged the road. Some got angry with her when she asked them to get out of the way. “I told them to give us some space: we’re trying to save the horses. It was a zoo, but we all buckled down and just got the job done.”

Dressage trainer Sarah Lockman was one of those running horses out to safety, often handing them over to complete strangers with unknown horse handling experience before racing back to get another. “It was surreal,” Sarah reflects. “On the one hand it was refreshing to see how we could rely on the local horse community and other volunteers so well. On the other hand, it was scary to let go control of the horses to random guys – including guys in business suits.

“I’ve had fire nightmares every night since the fire,” Sarah continues. “Hearing the Park Rangers yell, ‘Everybody out!’ ‘Last chance.’ And seeing volunteers running by ask asking ‘Are all the horses out?’ In your head, you’re saying, ‘I think so,’ but knowing that would be the saddest thing ever if one was left behind.”  That nightmare didn’t happen as all horses were hauled out safely to various locations in Orange County.

Along with Sarah’s Sarah Lockman Dressage, Peacock Hill is home to trainers Edgar Pagan, Faith Grimm, Lauren Cirignano, Patty Foltz McCarty, Debbie McEwen and Lynn Strand.

The first Canyon fire was a “blessing in disguise” because it triggered a fire drill in advance of the real need for evacuation three weeks later, Sarah says. The real drill included putting trusted professional horse haulers “on call” at the first hint of need. Along with fueling up her own six-horse rig and calling all her clients, Sarah told Les Thompson to put two 18-horse rigs on standby. She called to activate them just a short while later. With roughly an hour window to get the horses out, Les’ units wound up being among those who arrived too late to enter the park. The hauler’s refusal to charge for any of his considerable time and services is one of many acts of generosity Sarah experienced.

Having Sarah’s name and phone numbers on all horse’s halters, and a list of what horses would go in what trailers were part of the trainer’s long-standing evacuation plan. Dating back to her Pony Club days, she has treated evacuation plans as a staple of stable management. “It was amazing,” she says of how well the emergency plan worked. “That’s my shout out to other trainers is you just need to have a plan. We were so efficient. Everybody had a job to do and we were able to save all the horses.”

The Road Ahead

On Wednesday Oct. 18, Peacock Hill’s owner/manager Robin was allowed back into her office for the first time and she needed her own level head to counter the “head spinning” number of tasks involved in rebuilding the boarding facility. Happily, the Country Trails riding and lesson program part of the property was unscathed and its 25 horses moved back in the same day, along with Robin’s three personal horses. She thought the popular program would be able to re-open for business very soon.

Robin bought Peacock Hill five years ago and invested in significant upgrades that have made it a thriving boarding and training business. Rebuilding is a daunted project. “You can’t just demo everything and slap up new stalls,” she explains. “You have to get permits for everything, do a site plan and follow a lot of protocols.”

Insurance is not expected to cover all the costs. FEMA has sent delegates to Peacock Hill and the Small Business Administration may have disaster assistance loans to offer, but even so the outlay to rebuild will be huge. The County of Orange has offered to help expedite the permitting process. Robin says she appreciates that and has requested monetary aid from the County, too, though had not heard whether that will be available.
Sarah Lockman’s horses were first evacuated to Coto de Caza Equestrian Center in south Orange County and the Orange County Fairgrounds further north. Coto and the Sycamore Trails Stable in San Juan Capistrano will be Sarah’s base for the foreseeable future. She’s been pleasantly surprised by the extent to which the training and sales aspects of her business have returned to a relatively normal state.

Other professionals were not so fortunate. Show jumping trainer Edgar Pagan’s horses survived, but he lost everything else in the fire, and had to evacuate his own home, too. As happened in countless fire stories, friends spread the word, GoFundMe drives were launched and the horse community stepped forward to help with donated tack, supplies and monetary help. As of Oct. 22, all but $1,000 of a $17,500 fundraising goal had been met on a GoFundMe page for Edgar, established by a friend.


How to Help

The fires in Northern & Southern California have done an unfathomable amount of damage and those afflicted have a long road to recovery ahead. Here are a few resources for helping horses and horse owners in need.

•    Sunrise Horse Rescue:
•    Sonoma County Horse Council:
•    Napa Community Animal Response Team:
•    Napa Valley Horsemen’s Association:
•    Sonoma County Fairgrounds Shelter:
•    Solano County Fairgrounds:
•    California Professional Horsemen’s Assn. (You can send a tax deductible check to the CPHA Foundation, 10153 1/2 Riverside Dr. Suite 390, Toluca Lake, CA 91602, or call the office at 818-955-9500 with your credit card to make a donation.)
•    Southern California Equine Emergency Evacuation: on Facebook
•    UC Davis Veterinary Catastrophic Need Fund:

GoFundMe pages
•    Northern California Hunter Jumper Association: Help horses displaced by N.CA fires
•    Fire Damage - Peacock Hill Equestrian: Funds toward rebuilding costs for the public boarding and training facility.
•    Edgar Pagan: Funds toward temporary boarding costs for his personal horses and replacement of tack and other supplies.
•    Canyon Fire 2 Equine Evacuee Fund: Funds to help all horses evacuated, with any extra donations given to the Peacock Hill rebuilding fund.
•    Lynn Strand Training Center: Funds toward helping Lynn maintain her clients’ horses which are spread throughout Orange County.
•    Sarah Lockman Dressage: Help SLD After Devastating Fire
•    Get Patty Back In The Saddle Again: Funds to help Patty Foltz McCarty

Heartening Efforts

The Murieta Equestrian Center and its related non-profit, the West Coast Equine Foundation, is purchasing an 8.5’ by 20’ cargo trailer to help the Northern California Association of Equine Practitioners treat victims of the recent fires, along with emergencies in the future. It also took in 30 horses from Daniel and Susan Ighani’s Ighani Sporthorses in Napa, including several Minis rescued from earlier life predicaments by their student Ransome Rombauer.

The Sonoma Horse Park donated 300-plus bags of shavings to evacuated horses at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. It also made a temporary home available to 100 horses.

Members of the Stanford Equestrian Team, Red Barn border Hilary Bates and Starwood Equine Veterinary Services teamed up to deliver supplies, including 36 blankets, to evacuated Bay Area horses.

Stephanie Cosso organized friends and fellow horse owners in Orange County to host a free “tack store” for boarders at the Peacock Hill Equestrian Center in Irvine Regional Park. After several days of driving around the County picking up donations, several truck-fulls of tack and supplies were much appreciated by those whose equipment had perished in the Canyon Fire 2 Oct. 9. Stephanie happily reports there were enough items left over to be shipped to those in need in Northern California.

“It’s a horrible thing,” confirms dressage trainer Susan Ighani. “Yet I’m really very proud to be part of this horse community.” She and her show jumping husband Daniel operate their Ighani Sporthorses out of privately owned Toyon Farms in Napa. The farm did not seem to be in immediate danger when they opted to play it safe and haul their program’s 25 horses off to the Murieta Equestrian Center in the Sacramento area’s Rancho Murieta. Extremely smoky air was a big factor in their precaution and “I would do that 10 times over rather than taking a risk with the horses’ lives,” Susan reflects.

Although lack of cell and internet service in many areas made for spotty communication, it was always abundantly clear to Susan that hundreds of people were ready to help. As Daniel made multiple trips to the Equestrian Center, the resident hunter/jumper trainer there Kelly Van Vleck made sure that show stalls for the Ighanis’ horses were bedded down with shavings. Show jumper Carole Wright provided a camper for the Ighanis’ grooms to live in and a friend offered up a home for Daniel, Susan and their 2-year-old daughter.

Susan hopes that people not living in fire-affected areas understand the scope of the damage and its long-term effect on victims’ lives and livelihoods. “So many people have lost everything and need so much help to rebuild. It is going to be a long fix for a lot of people.”

The Gallop welcomes news, tips and photos. Contact Kim F. Miller at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or 949-644-2165.