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Five days, home

As the fallout from recent tragic wildfires continues to be assessed, writer Elizabeth Kaye McCall shares the evacuation of her beloved stallion, RajaliKa, from the Lilac Fire

By ELIZABETH KAYE McCALL - January 1st, 2018 - Feature Article
At the Del Mar Fairgrounds duruing evacuations, trainer Manny Calvario with RajaliKa

At the Del Mar Fairgrounds duruing evacuations, trainer Manny Calvario with RajaliKa

Elizabeth Kaye McCall photo

There’s an advertisement in horse magazines that always gets my attention. It says something like, “your horse has never colicked until he does.” Something like that. It came to mind as I thought about the Lilac Fire in northern San Diego County that erupted with the same “until it does” urgency on Dec. 7, a day already infamous as Pearl Harbor Day. On a more personal level, also my late father’s birthday.

I was rushing to leave for an appointment at the Apple Store in Temecula, late as usual, when a friend from the barn called to tell me about a fire a couple miles from where I live in Fallbrook. The Santa Anas had depleted the air of any humidity a day earlier. I’d noticed my horse’s tail electric when I’d brushed it the night before. But fire? I turned on the TV as the friend suggested. It was close, but with little sign beyond the TV news coverage of getting urgent. I was packing a suitcase, already had my laptop out, and got dog and cat food ready as well as the carriers. I wasn’t really thinking about the barn at that point –only that I’d get a few things together in case. Two hours later, when a mandatory evacuation alert reached my street, I set off with a crying cat and worried dog, in the car, thinking I’d gotten things handled pretty easily on short notice.

But even during fires that burned in Malibu and Agua Dulce when I lived there, I voluntarily took precious things in my car. It was a never a mandatory evacuation. When I later looked at what I’d packed in my seemingly calm, focused state (as I remember), I found multiple sweat pants, long sleeved tops (with high 80-degree weather accompanying the Santa Anas) and abundant underwear. Socks were forgotten.

I set off to the barn six or seven miles away in Bonsall, planning to overnight there in an RV on property. It wasn’t until I’d arrived that the spacey “what just happened?” feeling from a sudden evacuation hit me. At some point the news about the fire at San Luis Rey Training Center came up.

In my first career out of college, I was a flight attendant, which generally has made knowing to check my emergency exits — from hotels, movie theaters, and of course, planes — something I tend to do. On the night the Lilac Fire first raged, I was acutely aware I had no idea what my options were when I left the stable where my horse boards, unsure if I’d ever see him again. The power had gone out and the sky was orange in one direction when I saw the flashing lights of a police car on top of a hill where some property owners live. I’d moved my horse from his stall in the barn to a metal round pen in a field mostly of dirt. A guy who lives on the property and who was preparing to evacuate had found a water barrel and filled it inside the round pen before he left. He called me about 6:30 p.m., after leaving.

“You have to get out of there, now!” he insisted.

There were two women trying to load a second horse into a trailer. Aside from them, I was the only one on the property. Two others who had left to check the status of the fire and planned to come back had not returned. My guess was that they couldn’t. A haynet with timothy already prepared for me to take to the round pen for my horse ended up in the back of my car. I found it much later, after driving all the way to L.A. When I had received the call to “get out of there, now,” I had no idea if the 30 or 60 seconds needed to walk or drive the haynet to the round pen would have been be the difference in time I needed to get out. The barn was at the end of a one-lane road with no outlet. I had left heading toward orange sky with a numb feeling about a horse who’s been the love of my life for over nine years.

I was headed down the usual road toward Olive Hill when I approached fire burning on the right side. Sparks of something on fire was crossing the road. I turned my Subaru around as fast as I could and headed the opposite direction. I had no idea where I was going or even if there was an outlet ahead.

Five or 10 minutes later, I saw a Cal Fire car and then a horse trailer. The officer said follow the road when I asked. Someone called me and asked where I was — I had no idea. Street signs weren’t visible. I kept driving until I reached a traffic light, somewhere in Oceanside, and pulled into a parking lot. The tension and emotions surfaced. I kept calling until I reached someone I knew. The first one I reached was in L.A., and I got on the freeway and drove north. About four hours had passed since I evacuated my house with the two cats crying incessantly.

I just wanted to be somewhere I could be quiet and make peace with whatever the night might bring as calls about the fire kept coming.

Around 11:00 pm, I was walking around a Von’s grocery store in West L.A. looking for a litter pan for my cat, who’d been in the car for eight hours at that point. They were out. A disposable roasting pan would have to do. The impact of the previous hours was hitting. While driving through side streets, I noticed a text and pulled over to call. The barn manager and her assistant had gone back to the ranch. Things were looking better, she said. By the time I finally reached my friend’s in West L.A. with the makeshift litter box, another text said things were looking pretty good. At some point in between, I got a frantic sounding call from a friend who lives on Olive Hill whose horse property miraculously survived, except for a burned down hay barn. At the time, she’d heard her house had burned, also Fallbrook’s movie theater (neither did). She said she’d try to get my horse out, if I wanted. Her voice was urgent, “You have no idea how bad it is!,” when I told her I’d heard things looked like they would be OK. I told her to give it a try. She couldn’t get through the road.

Dec. 7 has always been a date that stands out in my mind. My late father was born that day. That this was also the day the Lilac Fire started, will probably also come to mind each year. And, with it, a night of many texts, calls, little sleep and prayers — something that was happening in so much of Southern California that day, as fires raged in so many locations at once, where people I knew had horses. When I think back of driving to L.A. that night, I flashed on the scene from the movie Forest Gump, where he starts running and someone says “run Forest, run!” That’s probably what I was doing. The possibility that this could have been the last day a very special horse that’s been so much of my life for over nine years might be gone was sobering, in so many ways.

I was still in L.A. around noon the next day when I got a call from the ranch saying there were people with trailers who would evacuate any horses that people wanted evacuated. Unless the winds changed, things were probably fine. There was no question in my mind about what to do. It was a second chance, so to speak. I called the first name and heard the voice of Chris Perez, someone I’ve never met and know nothing about except for the sound of his voice and the feeling I got when I talked to him on the phone. Fifteen minutes later, my Arabian stallion was en route to Del Mar. I left my dog and cat at the friends and headed south on the 405.

At some point in years of living in fire country, I’d become aware of a few basics.. such as writing names and phone numbers on the horse’s halter, on duct tape across the rump (unlike the last time I prepped for an evacuation in Agua Dulce, it wouldn’t stick this time with winter long and dusty hair. I didn’t take chances. I wrote my phone number, my name and my horse’s on all four hooves with a Sharpie pen this time when the closeness of the fire was first apparent. Ean Corbet was among the management team at Del Mar Fairgrounds, working with arriving evacuees, while his own home — filled with irreplaceable antiques — stood in a questionable location, given the whims of the fire. He later told me about some of the experiences he’s had working at Del Mar as evacuated horses arrived. He told me about times when frantic owners would arrive and search for horses that get evacuated but where …they don’t know. Ean’s face glowed when he described what it was like when he saw a distraught owner find their missing horse.

After the Lilac Fire, anyone should know that sometimes the only option is to get horses out any way possible for them to survive. Communication is impossible to overemphasize in an emergency situation like this. Despite online updates, texts, and calls, the chance of miscommunication and misinformation can so easily happen in times of crisis like this. I can only imagine how a stable manager in the thick of things when a fire rages, can handle the nonstop inquiries from worried owners, while determine the best course of actions in moment-by-moment situations.

I could feel how little sleep I’d had when I reached Del Mar and saw the lighted board — Evacuations…and the easy-to-spot sign for arrivals Chris had registered my horse and gotten him settled before I even reached Orange County on my drive south. I gave the stall number as I reached the gate. The woman who welcomed me with a big smile immediately said, “Don’t buy anything. Come back and we will get you what you need.”

She was right. I’d been concerned about getting timothy for my horse. The last thing I needed was a colic from a sudden change to alfalfa. My concerns were needless. Bales of timothy, among other hay, bags of shavings, and more were already in a location near my horse, whom I found enjoying a hay bag and looking out the dutch door when I reunited with him.

By virtue of his stall location, which put me in a neighborhood of trainers, grooms, and horses from San Luis Rey Downs, my experience of evacuating my horse from the fire became one of meeting people who will forever remain in my mind and heart. My horse, RajaliKa, looked like he thought he was a party, looking at the horses from his open Dutch door. Even that first evening when I was there with him, there was a sort of calm serenity, as far as the horses were concerned. The aisles in front of the stalls were meticulously raked. I felt a little self-conscious looking down at the pigpen in front of my horses stall, after dining from a hay bag hung near the door. I started raking the next day. It just felt right.

I had to keep reminding myself to stay alert and “wake up” as I drove from Del Mar back to Fallbrook. It was dark. I was exhausted and relieved to not wonder about the wind changing all night. When I got home, I was pleasantly surprised to see the power had stayed on. When I tried turning on the TV, I discovered it was out, also the phone and internet. The cell reception is marginal inside. I was too tired to worry and slept. Back at Del Mar the following day, a string of memorable meetings unfolded.

Manny Calvario, came to my stall to give me a message soon after I arrived the next day. Manny is a trainer who was at San Luis Rey Downs freeing horses when the Lilac Fire raced through the stables. He’s the man who pulled his neighbor, Martine Bellocq, out of a burning stall. Manny stretched out his arm while we were talking. He said he couldn’t see his hand the smoke was so thick. I didn’t realize until later when I found a clip online from an ABC10 News interview with Manny, that he’d lost everything that day. Manny told me he’d moved from Northern California to San Luis Rey to train earlier this year. He said he’s always loved horses. For all that happened, for all he did, from where I stood, you would think it was a normal day, his horses looking out their stalls, finishing up their day with an oat mixture he has slow cooking for them during the day that smelled like something I could eat for breakfast. He gave me a handful for my horse to try. (He liked it.) There was such a quietness about him despite it all.

There were usually people congregating around the tables loaded with all kinds of food at Del Mar. After clarifying some details in the operations office and meeting Del Mar Fairgrounds’ Area Operations Supervisor Scott Streuver, I went looking for coffee.

The overflowing support was felt in so many ways by those who evacuated to Del Mar.
At the table where volunteers coordinated requests for a number of veterinarians circling the grounds to help any horses in need, I met a bright, smiling blonde vet tech named Erin Hogin from Kentucky Equine Research (KER). She was one of six people just in from Kentucky to help, who flew in on the private plane owned by Spendthrift Farms owner. Erin had no idea where she was sleeping that night and had a surgical procedure of her own scheduled a few days later back home, yet she was there to help. Minutes after we met, she was climbing into a truck with Amy Johnson, DVM, from San Diego Equine Group, one of the local vets volunteering on site and came to check a swelling my horse.

I got the news Monday evening that the road was open for my horse to return to the ranch in Bonsall on Tuesday. I didn’t really expect trailers to be hanging around to help at this point. And, it was Monday. Anyone with a regular job would be back at work. Sarah (the volunteer supervisor), immediately handed me a name and number when I walked into the office. That’s how I met Stacey Rees, a professional hauler from Arizona who had been evacuating and helping move horses nonstop since she had heard about the Lilac Fire. At one point after taking evacuees to Del Mar, she returned overnight to Arizona, then came back to help more and began taking horses home. I asked Stacey how she got into hauling. She shared that she’d had cancer. Hauling horses and seeing the country was on her bucket list. Stacey and her team had already made at least two round trips to Bonsall when she came back to take my horse home. She wanted him to be able to travel alone since he’s a stallion. Stacey’s daughter was in labor (in Arizona) with her first child when Stacey delivered my horse back at the barn. She said she was sure she would get back in time for his birth. She made it, and is now a grandma.

Elizabth Kaye McCall is a journalist and author who lives in Fallbrook. Her equestrian titles include “RajaliKa Speak” and “The Tao Of Horses”.

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