December 2018 - Fires Everywhere


Wildfires spark crisis, courage & kindness from fire-weary California equestrians.

by Kim F. Miller

The death toll in Northern California’s Camp fire neared 80, with 1,200 still missing, at presstime, and the Woolsey fire had laid waste to most of Malibu and many homes and stables in a wide swath of the surrounding area.  Once again, stories of the equestrian community’s preparedness and willingness to risk all for horses and their people bring some solace to heartbreaking tales of lost lives, property and worldly possessions.

Here are a few of their stories from both ends of the state. This reporting was done the week of Nov. 12, and mostly refers to events during the fires’ immediate outbreaks. The status of evacuations, stables, etc., has likely changed since then.

For suggestions on helping those affected, see story in this issue.

Amelie Kovac: How You Would Picture Hell

When calls to six different fire departments went unanswered, dressage trainer Amelie Kovac had her first clue about the severity of the smoke rising behind a hill near her in Ventura County’s Somis. She eventually reached the fire department, through a call to the police department, confirming her fears that it was bad indeed. Though farther from her than it appeared, it was only just beginning.

The wind direction was favorable toward her Somis base, yet the next several hours were tense. What became the unimaginably devastating Woolsey fire was close to fellow dressage trainer and close friend Carly Taylor Smith, located at the Vista Pacifica Equestrian Center in Malibu. Amelie was ready to drive to Malibu on a moment’s notice. That moment came two days later, when her fears for Carly and her horses became all too real. Amelie knew Carly would not have time to make more than one trip out with her three-horse trailer, so she hit the phones requesting help of several friends who were also standing by.  “We gunned it for Malibu.”

They were just in time. “Police were already not letting people in,” Amelie recounts. She and her hauler friends were cleared to go with the understanding that they were on their own.

“It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” she says of entering the Malibu area. “It’s hard to explain. It was literally how you would picture hell. Black smoke all around us. It felt like it was midnight, except there was red light all over.”
Thanks to the whole crew’s help, they were able to evacuate all of Carly’s horses, including an older horse and two mini ponies. Most are staying at the private farm in Somis where Amelie is based. As with every evacuation story, Amelie emphasizes that the rescue was a total team effort.

At presstime, Carly’s barn was still standing.

Connie Andrusaitis: Somnolent Horses

The math was bad from the beginning. Butte Creek Horse Club owner Connie Andrusaitis had one three-horse trailer and 25 horses on her property. The Camp fire line was approximately a mile away on Thursday, Nov. 8, and the area was under a recommended, not yet mandatory, evacuation status.  Even if they had more trailers, the escape routes were clogged with “a steady stream of slow traffic,” Connie explains.

At that point, Connie and her team decided to stay put. They were prepared. At the first spark, they used orchard hoses to wet down every inch of the stabling areas and surrounding property, anticipating that electricity might cease, which would cut off their water pump. They turned on electric sprinklers, too, and filled up every water bucket on the property.

By that point, some boarders had hauled their horses out and a few other people had hauled their horses in for safe-keeping. In past fires, Connie and many others in the Butte Valley area had taken horses to Camelot Equestrian Park nearby. That wasn’t an option this time. The grass fire moved so fast, it trapped horses at the stables and closed roads prevented anyone for getting in to help or evacuate them. Connie is in regular touch with Camelot and happily reported at presstime that all the horses there are safe, with plenty of hay and water. She confirmed ongoing reports that the majority of structures at the 1600-acre boarding and event venue are intact.

Connie is a DC emeritus for the Butte Valley Pony Club, which mobilized immediately to gather donated funds, gear and other supplies for the many horses and owners affected by the Camp fire.  Pony Clubs from throughout the state and beyond are gathering donations. “It’s coming in from all over,” Connie reports. “I’ve got a trailer full of stuff. Just waiting for the roads to clear so I can get it over to Camelot.”

Several days after she no longer felt at immediate risk of the fire, the smoke hung thick at her property. Connie is wearing a mask full-time and acknowledged that it’s hard to protect the horses from it. “It’s interesting watching the horses. Normally when it’s as cool as it’s been, they’d get frisky. But they are almost somnolent. They feel just like we do.” Exercise is out of the question, of course, and their horses’ odd moods seem well suited for that. “Everybody is just standing in their stalls eating.”

Kim Stevens & Lorie Fee: A Family Affair

Scenes from Mill Creek Equestrian Center: (left) Chester and Buttercup, new schoolies.; (middle) (top): Driving towards fire on PCH, found out Topanga already had road block. (bottom): In Bell Canyon when fire was starting there.; (right) (top): Diego & Frodo, best friends and awesome school horses. (bottom): Driving towards fire on 101.

Crazy-making as it was, Mill Creek Equestrian Center barn manager Kim Stevens spent several hours of pre-evacuation time standing in the office. The winds had knocked out internet and cell service, so the office landline was their only means of communication. Meanwhile, longtime barn manager Lorie Fee orchestrated an all-too familiar triage of getting 65 horses ready for evacuation from the Topanga Canyon property.

They determined which horses needed a little sedative, which preferred a ramp loader over a step-up trailer, etc. And then there were the “schoolies,” the school horses who never leave the property.

Past experiences paid off in the form of getting all 65 off to safety in about five hours. A routine emergency preparation meeting just a month before helped, too. During the evacuation and in the ongoing aftermath, Lorie credits the “Mill Creek family for really helping out, hopping in wherever they could.” Five days after the horses arrived at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, volunteers were giving horses two 15-minute hand walks a day and performing various barn chores. They included horse-owning clientele and once-a-week lesson-ers alike.

Less life-threatening challenges awaited after evacuating. “Horses are stressed,” Kim noted. “They can colic easily because they’re nervous in a new environment, especially those who never go anywhere.” The chlorinated water at LAEC tastes different and some horses weren’t drinking well. Adding bran mash and electrolytes helped with hydration in those cases. Some school horses were greatly calmed when reunited with the corral-mates: one immediately drank two buckets of water once he was put next to his buddy from home.

The barn managers are exceedingly grateful that they have a stable to return to as that’s not the case for many Malibu-area horsekeepers.

Terry Hilst: Like Noah’s Arc

The Camp fire was far from Terry’s first rodeo. Her property atop Yankee Hill in Butte County – 6.5 miles from the decimated town of Paradise – is highly defensible and they opted to shelter in place shortly after learning of the fire’s outbreak. “Having gone through previous evacuations and seeing the chaos in downtown and the demands on resources, we figured, Why put more demands on them? We felt we’d be safer here. Seeing the death toll (partly of people trying to escape), we made the right decision.”

Terry’s property is normally home to two people, three horses and a few dogs. But as soon as her phone started pinging with fire-related text messages early Thursday morning, that number quickly grew. “As soon as I looked at my phone, I went outside and the plume of smoke was right up the road.” She rushed to a neighbor’s house with her trailer, beginning evacuations that led to adding nine people to her household, along with an eventual total of about 50 animals, including 14 horses.

Two of the Hilsts’ new roommates are horse-owning neighbors who lost their homes and everything in them, one of them for the second time in her life. Their temporary menagerie includes alpacas, goats, miniature donkeys and a miniature horse. Terry’s voice cracks in sharing that one neighbor’s cat could not be saved.

Past experience made Terry a stickler for preparation. “I generally have a full year of hay for my horses,” she says. “I had a freezer full of food and had just gone to Costco for 110 pounds of dog food.” A generator and a well from the 1800s provide power and water for the long haul.

Even as the fires abate, Terry calls the impact of smoke inhalation “very scary.” While trudging through ashes and embers in the fire’s aftermath, she’s developed a “most amazing chemical reaction” from her Crocs shoes.  “I believe that reaction is taking place inside the animals’ lungs. I don’t really know what’s going to happen to their respiratory systems.

“All the animals are very quiet,” she continues. “They know something is going on. At the high point, we had 11 strange dogs here and not a single eruption of anything. It was very weird.”

Karen Mullin: “Phone, Keys, Truck.”

Karen Mullin & Jack. Photo: Kim F. Miller

Driving home from work toward her home in Agoura Hills on the evening of Thursday, Nov. 8, Karen Mullin saw the smoke ahead and thought, “I know where that fire is: it has to be five or six hours away.” She was quickly disabused of that notion with the first of many messages requesting help. It was from her trainer Robert Nava, who Facebook posted the need for help with horses at Four Winds Ranch in Old Agoura. “I dropped everything and asked myself, ‘What do I need to rescue horses? Phone, keys, truck.” (She doesn’t own a trailer, but was ready to hitch up an available one if needed.)

Most of Four Winds’ approximately 50 horses were evacuated or in trailers ready to go by the time Karen got there. When sure more help was not needed, she set out for home not far away but was turned away because her neighborhood had  been evacuated. She headed to be with her own horse, Jack, at Malibu Valley Farms. There, she helped load tack and other supplies in trailers just in case, and tried to get a few hours sleep in her truck. The facility’s watering truck had been wetting down the property and it seemed they might be OK.

At about 6 a.m. Friday morning, the Woolsey fire jumped the 101 Freeway and raged in Liberty Canyon, one canyon away from Malibu Valley’s location at Las Virgenes Road and Mulhulland Drive. By 7 a.m., Karen and other volunteers were loading horses and heading off to the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Burbank and the Hansen Dam Horse Park in Lake View Terrace.

In the midst of a chaotic several hours, the story of one evacuee’s recovered pony stands out for Karen. “The lady had a pony at Southland, where they’d had no time to evacuate and had to let the horses go,” she recounts. “Through talking to people, we found out that a few of those horses were thought to be at neighbor’s house. On Saturday, we tried to go find the pony.  On the way to that ranch, the owner insisted we stop at Southland because horses will often run back to their barn.

“It was surreal,” Karen continues. “There were a couple of buildings still standing, but most everything was just fried and still smoldering.  We found the pony standing all by himself, in front of his burned-out stall.” Animal Control officers helped transport the pony, its owner and Karen back to safety and the pony went on to the good care of her trainer, Robert, at the LAEC. “That pony would have died if we hadn’t found him.”

Karen recounted her experience while hand-walking Jack at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center the following Tuesday. She was able to return to her home the night before and was still processing the experience of helping horses and people through the disaster. It was not over. “People understand it to a point, but then they don’t,” she said while taking a second day off from her job as an assistant middle school principal. “Their world is still normal.”

As of our visit, Karen believed Malibu Valley Farms was intact, but had no idea when Jack and his stable mates would be able to return there.

Robert Nava: Facebook Was Our Savior

Hunter/jumper trainer Robert Nava described his two Facebook pages and approximately 10,000 followers as “saviors’ in his efforts to help several stables get their horses out of the Woolsey fire’s path. That included his own program’s horses at Malibu Valley Farms (see above segment from his student Karen Mullin.) Early on in the rescue efforts he was directing, cell and landline phone service was non-existent. A just-in-time Facebook post got the need for help widely distributed and likely saved many horses’ lives.

Robert is a longtime Southern California resident and fire veteran. He’s taken horses in several times over the years, but this was the first time having to evacuate. “You think you are prepared for it, but you are never fully prepared for it. There’s always things you don’t think of grabbing.” Ample amounts of water and feed buckets were on that list. As of Tuesday, Nov. 14, 18 horses from his program were living at Los Angeles Equestrian Center and others were at Hansen Dam. The fires were mostly contained, but much work remained in the days and months ahead.

“There’s so much going on behind the scenes that people don’t know about,” he said. “It’s overwhelming.”

Alison Burt-Jacobs: Overwhelming Support

“Overwhelmed” is the only way Alison Burt-Jacobs can describe her state of mind in the days since the Woolsey fire took out Iron Horse Ranch in Malibu. She is the longtime assistant to dressage trainer Jane Arrasmith Duggan and both have been based at the privately-owned training facility for many years.

The loss of the ranch is devastating, yet it’s gratitude that dominates Alison’s account of everything that’s happened since Friday, Nov. 9. The story starts with the fact that the program’s 11 horses were safely evacuated with likely less than two-and-a-half hours to spare before Iron Horse burned down—and all with Alison and Jane across the country with two students at the US National Dressage Finals in Kentucky.

“It’s very rare that both of us are gone at the same time,” Alison explains. Working with the facility’s owners, haulers and friends, the trainers ran their “command post” from Kentucky. Fellow dressage pro Kristina Harrison quickly arranged stabling at The Paddock in Los Angeles. Students Whitney and Kaylen Harrington launched a Facebook campaign to solicit donations of equipment, funds, and even an affordable place for Alison to live, as the home she lived in at Iron Horse was among the destroyed structures.

“It’s unbelievable how much people have done in just a few days,” Alison explains. “The scope of it is really incredible.” Tack and supplies have come in from all over the state and far beyond, and sponsors including N2 Saddlery stepped up in big ways. “The second day we were at the Paddock, N2 Saddlewhiry brought us three saddles, fit them to our horses and gave us girths, stirrup leathers, etc. Everything we needed to get started riding again.”

A few of the items gathered for Woolsey fire victims in an effort spearheaded by Whitney Harrington.

Whitney spearheaded the effort to match needs with donations. Early in the campaign, she needed to rent a storage unit to handle the steady flow of contributions. As the needs of Iron Horse horses and riders are met, anything extra will be distributed to others in need. “I don’t think we have a grasp of the scope of the loss yet,” Alison notes. “There are so many private people that keep two or three horses at their homes, which they’ve now lost. As we get information about what people need, we will be distributing what we have to them.”

Alison relays that Iron Horse owners Lynn and Glenn Cardoso plan to rebuild, but it will be a while. In the interim, the horses will soon move to Mill Creek Equestrian Center in Topanga Canyon, a location that is more central to their owners.

Amid all the terrifying moments and days, Alison and Jane were determined to keep their cool at the National Championships with students Laura Phillips and Hunter Chancelor. “There were a lot of tears, but both had super rides,” Alison reports. “When we were done coaching them, we went back to organizing the effort at home from afar.” As word of the California fires spread through the Kentucky Horse Park showgrounds, the Iron Horse women got their first hint of the “outpouring of support” awaiting them at home. “They gave us all kinds of things and support before we left.”

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.