Why Did Dozens of Horses Die in the Southern California Wildfires?

Nestled in the foothills just north of Los Angeles, Rancho Padilla was an idyllic setting for the 60 or so horses that lived there. But early in the morning of Dec. 6, it quickly became a hellish inferno when the fast-moving Creek wildfire roared across the area.

“All I could think about was the horses, the horses, the horses,” Patricia Padilla, whose family built the stables over 20 years ago, told the Los Angeles Times. “And [the fire crew] were like, ‘Get out, get out, get out. The structures can get rebuilt, but the lives of the horses can’t. … That’s my biggest heartbreak.”

Two workers who were awakened by the smoke ran to a barn, whose roof was already on fire and doors too hot to open. After firefighters extinguished some of the flames, animal control officers were able to cut through the padlocks on 10 stalls to save horses, but then the barn reignited and the roof collapsed before they could save the rest.

Nearly 30 horses, trapped in their padlocked stalls, burned to death.

“This event serves as a tragic reminder for those who keep horses to develop actionable evacuation plans to reduce loss and injury,” the County of Los Angeles Department of Animal Care and Control said in a statement. “Horse stalls should never be padlocked or otherwise made inaccessible.”

As heartbreakingly awful as this was, the very same tragedy happened the following afternoon about 125 miles south in San Diego County, when the Lilac wildfire suddenly swept through the San Luis Rey Downs Training Center. The stable is home to about 450 mostly thoroughbred horses.

“I was heading to my barn to drop my equipment off and I smell smoke,” trainer Kim Marrs told KPCC. “Within two minutes, I look up the hill and you could just see it come up over the ridge.”

Marrs and others risked their own lives to free the horses from barns that were catching fire. Very difficult-to-watch videos show terrified horses running through the smoke and flames. Some were able to escape, while others, panicked, ran in circles. Still others refused to leave their stalls.

As many as 40 horses died at the training center. Many others sustained severe burns, as did the trainers and others who did everything they could to save them. Cliff Sise was burned on his chest and arm as he tried to remove a 2-year-old filly from her stall. She refused to budge and did not survive. At least one trainer had to be hospitalized for the burns he sustained trying to get his horses to safety.

The horses that were able to escape were rounded up and treated at the nearby Del Mar racetrack.

There is a bit of good news among all the bad: Although their stalls burned, all the horses at the Gibson Ranch in Sunland were successfully rescued during the Creek fire. As you can see in this video, TV news reporter Kristine Lazar even became part of the story when she stopped to help evacuate the horses.

‘A Horror We Need to Recover From’

Since the beginning of December, 20 wildfires have burned in Southern California. The fire season used to end in late October, but because of climate change, the season may never end.

“We’re facing a new reality in this state,” Governor Jerry Brown said Dec. 9, after surveying the damage from the Thomas fire in Ventura County, which has burned over 230,000 acres. “It’s a horror and a horror we need to recover from.” People need to come together, he said, to make communities livable.

A tragic lesson learned from the deaths of so many horses is not only that their living quarters should be better fireproofed, but — especially — that their stalls should always be left unlocked so horses can be quickly evacuated in an emergency.

How to Help

Fundraisers are being held to help cover the costs of veterinary treatment for the burned horses, including a GoFundMe campaign that has raised over $632,000 as of Dec. 13 to help care for the survivors of the fire at the San Luis Rey Downs Training Center.

Donations to help care for the horses that survived the Rancho Padilla fire can be made via the Los Angeles County Animal Care Foundation website.

Here are some more ways you can help the victims of these devastating wildfires.

Photo credit: CC0 Creative Commons

137 comments

Marie W
Marie Wabout a month ago

thanks for sharing

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Lesa D
Lesa D5 months ago

horrific...

thank you Laura...

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Julie D
Julie D6 months ago

This was so tragic and heart breaking.

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Nicole H
Nicole Heindryckx6 months ago

What could make a difference 1/ have regular "escape" trainings as are being done in schools, buildings with a certain nr. of apartments, etc.. 2/ Use locks (with alarm systems against theft) on the stable doors that can easily be opened from outside 3/ issue a plan with escape routes, depending from where the fire is coming.
4/ In the 2nd video I heard the Spanish speaking workers were utmost nervous, crying & shouting certainly does not calm down the horses. 5/ in this same video, the horses were running around and around and around... Was their no escape route ?? 6/ Are there any fire alarms installed in the stables ?? 7/ What about insurance. I understand their losses must be huge, but when you are well insured, the loss of your stables and other material is not so dramatic and are the horses insured ? I agree Insurance policies DO NOT pay everything, but at least, it's a good start and finally what about sprinklers. The modern sprinklers start the alarm & sprinkling very rapidly. May be enough to prevent the roofs / walls to collapse on the animals.
We are all talking about global warming. But what have we done to protect our properties / animals / factories and human lives. We will see more and more of them. So, all people involved MUST sit around the table NOW and discuss serious measures to be taken as soon as possible to prevent such catastrophes.

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joan silaco
joan silaco6 months ago

TYFS

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Amparo Fabiana C

Amazing how all these horse workers speak in Spanish to the horses, and risk their lives. It's California. Trump wouldn't like this, but who is going to the that job: the latino immigrants.

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Amparo Fabiana C

My Chaparrita got eyes injuries

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Amparo Fabiana C

I have cried so much for their sweet souls...so sad, such a huge lost of properties, lives of animals, wildlife.

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Marilyn M
Marilyn M6 months ago

Thank you.

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Past Member
Past Member 6 months ago

I am NOT defending the actions of the stables managers who locked the horses into their stalls. Their reasoning for doing that is to prevent theft of the horses. There were stables that burned in the Sonoma-Napa fires, too, though none housing so many horses in one place. To my thinking, this practice is right up there with the assisted living home personnel who left elderly residents to fend for themselves when the facility with over 400 units caught fire in October. The family of one lady rescued 100 people from that! Why didn't the horse stables have sprinkler systems? The fires may have been too intense for sprinklers to save the buildings, but may have kept the doors and roof intact long enough to rescue more horses from that hell.

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