California Horse Owners, Vets Wait to Access Burned Areas

It's a waiting game now for horse owners and veterinarians in the areas of Southern California affected by wildfires--waiting to see if the fires still roaring through the area will miss the designated evacuation points that each hold hundreds of horses, and waiting until officials allow them to access areas the fire has swept through in order to treat the wounded and begin the search for survivors.

Mark Martinelli, DVM, MS, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, of California Equine Orthopedics, was able to give The Horse an eyewitness view of the situation in San Diego County. He is stationed at Vessels Stallion Farm, a Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred racehorse breeding facility in Bonsall that's currently serving as an evacuation point. The farm is harboring 300 horses in addition to its 400 permanent equine residents.

"It is every bit as bad as they say on the news," Martinelli said. "But, so far, there's not too much going on with the horses other than major-league evacuations."

Martinelli said he expects that to change as soon as officials start allowing people back into the scorched areas.

Because of the speed with which the fire traveled, many horse owners had to leave some or all of their animals behind when ordered to evacuate Sunday afternoon and evening. In numerous cases owners were stopped from returning to their farms to pick up horses that didn't fit in the first trailer loads. In these cases, Martinelli said, everyone's anxious to see what's awaiting them when they are allowed to return.

"Veterinarians who are right on the edge are telling me that they can't get up to get burned horses out," Martinelli said.

"It's not going to be good," he predicted of the situation that will soon unfold.

Equine Center

In this image, a resident of Lytle Creek evacuates a horse ahead of the flames during the 2003 fires that devastated the area.

Martinelli said the continued strength and constant shifting of the wind direction--and, thus, the fires--is the reason why horse owners are being blocked from returning.

"That's what is keeping everybody on the edge of their seats--they have no idea what direction this thing's going to go in at any time," Martinelli said, adding that the wind is the major difference between this fire and the devastating blaze in 2003.

At noon today (Oct. 23), Martinelli said the fire was moving through the center of San Diego County. If the wind doesn't shift it could continue all the way to the coast. People in some areas of Del Mar have been advised to evacuate. Around 2,000 horses are currently stabled at the Del Mar racetrack. Martinelli said he's advocating staying put at Del Mar and defending the track, rather than relocating the horses.

"We're trying to get people not to leave the racetrack," Martinelli said. "We feel it's relatively safe and there are 2,000 horses there. It doesn't make sense to move all those horses again."

At Vessel, Martinelli said they had an eye on an "ominous" fire line in their backyard that was changing by the hour yesterday. Fenceline sprinklers ran all day as a precaution, but the fire never came down into the river valley that contains the farm.

Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe, also in San Diego County, was evacuated yesterday and equine patients relocated.

"There were some postoperative colics there that had to be moved to the polo fields, which are just about three miles down the road," Martinelli said. "They called me last night, still worried about wanting to evacuate that area because they were watching houses go up on the ridges around there, but nothing came into that little valley there."

Until the fire stops and people are allowed to again access the burned areas, everyone is preparing for what casualties they might find.

"What we've tried to do is set up treatment centers," Martinelli said. "We have I.V. fluids and surgical equipment ready at Vessel, and we've cordoned off part of the facility there to use as a mini clinic and it's not been needed yet ... the horses just have not surfaced yet that need that care."


From the front lines: Want to share your stories and photographs of the fires' impact on area horses and farms? Send them to

About the Author

Erin Ryder

Erin Ryder is a former news editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care.

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