A devastating and fast-moving wildfire in San Diego County, fueled by powerful Santa Ana winds, struck San Luis Rey Downs in Bonsall, Calif., on Thursday, killing an estimated 25 horses despite heroic efforts of workers stabled at the training center and volunteers from the area. Many of the approximately 500 horses stabled at San Luis Rey Downs were safely evacuated and moved to the Del Mar fairgrounds and racetrack and other locations. Several barns were reported as destroyed. Trainers with horses stabled at San Luis Rey include Peter Miller, Doug O'Neill, Clifford Sise and Scott Hansen, but the center is also home to many small operations.
Trainer Martine Bellocq was airlifted to UCSD Medical Center Hillcrest and is listed in critical condition with second- and third-degree burns on 50 percent of her body, according to her brother-in-law Remi Bellocq, a longtime racing industry executive. Martine and her husband, Pierre, lost three horses from their small stable in the fire and Martine was injured trying to save them, according to Bellocq. She will remain in a medically induced coma in the San Diego hospital's burn unit but Bellocq said vital signs were positive and that she was conscious upon arrival. Bloodhorse.com reports that trainer Joe Herrick has also been hospitalized at UCSD Medical Center with third-degree burns on his arm and shoulder.
The California Thoroughbred Horsemen's Foundation is among the groups assisting those impacted by the fire. Donations may be made at the CTHF website by clicking here and you may specify that your donation go toward assisting Bellocq or Herrick. See our related story on how you can help through other organizations.
Known as the Lilac Fire, the blaze was first reported at approximately 11:30 a.m. PST near Interstate 15 and south of state Route 76, according to published reports. Hundreds of fire fighters responded and helicopters and tankers were used in an attempt to contain the fire. It grew quickly, however, sweeping through the mostly agricultural town of Bonsall and toward Oceanside and the Camp Pendleton Marine base. By midnight, more than 100,000 people were evacuated from their homes. Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in the county.
Social media reports from various California-based turfwriters and horsemen late Thursday afternoon describe a chaotic scene, with workers fighting through heavy smoke and flames to get horses out of their stalls and in many cases turning them loose onto the training track and infield, which an official with The Stronach Group, owner of San Luis Rey Downs, said was a confined area. Horses were loaded onto vans, which managed to navigate to the training center despite road closures and blockages created by fire and rescue teams. Many workers resisted fleeing to safety in order to stay with the horses, according to reports.
By 10 p.m., all horses were evacuated.
Trainer Cliff Sise told CBS 8 that one of his horses perished as he tried to save her. He estimated there were 10 to 15 horses dead as of about 8:15 p.m. EST.
Steve Rothblum, a Doug O'Neill assistant, told Daily Racing Form that Leandro Mora, another member of the O'Neill team at San Luis Rey, described the fire as “an end-of-the-world scene.”
Leo Tapia, a groom for Peter Miller at San Luis Rey Downs, posted a Facebook live video of the chaos as he and others rescued horses and other animals from the fire. By morning the video had been viewed over 5 million times.
ABC10 reported that nearby ranch hands were in the process of rounding up loose horses at San Luis Rey to try to remove them from the facility. One man was injured when a horse he was trying to help kicked him in the face. At the time of ABC10's report (approximately 7 p.m. EST), the barns that were on fire at San Luis Rey were empty.
The California Horse Racing Board distributed the following statement late Thursday:
A fire erupted in northeast San Diego County Thursday afternoon and quickly engulfed approximately eight barns at the San Luis Rey (SLR) training center in Bonsall where nearly 500 racehorses were stabled. An unknown number of horses were evacuated before fire authorities declared conditions unsafe for vehicles to enter the area to pick up the remaining horses. Individuals at SLR risked their lives in efforts to free the horses from their stalls and herd them into the safer infield area and training track. However, it is believed that approximately 25 horses perished in the fire.
When safe for the horse vans to again enter the facility, most of the remaining horses were taken 35 miles south to Del Mar Racetrack where personnel and volunteers are adequately caring for them. As of 7:30 p.m. some 30 horses at SLR were still in the process of being evacuated and an unknown number of horses housed in pastures surrounding the property were unaccounted for as darkness prevented a thorough search of those areas.
CHRB personnel will be on the scene early Friday to work with the professionals and volunteers at SLR.
Los Alamitos Race Course announced that it is canceling its Friday afternoon racing program out of respect for the horses and people involved.
High winds of more than 20 miles per hour have complicated the fight against out-of-control blazes in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. An updated report by the Daily Racing Form‘s Steve Andersen indicated a number of trainers had horse vans ready to help them move horses out, but the fast-moving flames shut down roadways in the area. As of 8:45 p.m. EST, NBC News reported the Lilac Fire had grown to 2,500 acres.
NBC 7 News in San Diego tweeted video of horses in the path of the Lilac Fire running loose. It's unclear where those horses came from.
Spooked horses near the fast-moving #LilacFire ran in circles through the thick smoke, trying to escape the flames.
Authorities are trying to help large animals in harm's way. Find evacuation information for large animals here: https://t.co/anQv3bapnB pic.twitter.com/ZT4bYPzSMp
— #NBC7 San Diego (@nbcsandiego) December 7, 2017
Del Mar has opened its racetrack stabling and fair grounds property to horses and other animals being transported away from the blaze. Some social media reports indicate experienced volunteers are needed at Del Mar, in addition to bedding and supplies for the evacuated animals.
Horse Shows In The Sun's location in Thermal, Calif. posted on Facebook that the facility is open to evacuating horses.
This is a developing story and more information will be added as it becomes available.
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