Fire All Around Us

August, 2009. The smoke was thick, choking the life from our lungs. It was hot and dry, typical for a Southern California summer. The Santa Anas — the devil winds — threatened to tear sheds apart and toppled trees. As we drove home, I was horrified to see the fire had jumped the freeway and was burning on the slopes that surrounded it. Sparks filled Foothill Blvd in front of us. The field on our right was beginning to smoke.

We stopped and tried to stomp out the tiny flickers of flame. Others joined us. No use. The flames grew larger. We’d reached the fire department, and they promised to be there soon. Soon felt like forever.

That field was two blocks from my home, next door to someone else’s home and beside the brand-new condos we’d all tried to keep out of our beloved equine neighborhood. I took the single house residence. The others raced to the condos to warn the occupants. We could hear the wail of sirens in the distance, but were they for us? Flames were eating at the night sky all around us.

My daughter and I didn’t wait to find out. Back in our car, we drove through the unrelenting stream of sparks. Our home was on the other side. She’d worked hard that summer to remove all possible tinder from our property. I blessed her foresight. All was well when we arrived, but it was an anxious night. The call to evacuate never came. At least not for us. Others weren’t so lucky.

The Station Fire began in La Canada-Flintridge, not far from the famed Flintridge Riding Club. Under the able direction and training of the late Jimmy Williams, this fine stable was the home of stellar grand prix winners like Susan Hutchison, Hap Hansen, and Anne Kursinski. Flintridge memebers Mary Mairs Chapot, Mason Phelps, Robert Ridland, Anne Kursinski, Susan Hutchison and Hap Hansen have represented us in international and Olympics competitions. Fortunately, this fine training stable survived the blaze.

The fire quickly burned toward us, reaching Pacoima Canyon before turning north. Ranches and wild life centers in both Big Tujunga and Little Tujunga Canyons were endangered, with 62 homes burning to the ground. While most residents evacuated their animals to temporary shelters at Pierce College and the Antelope Valley Fairgrounds, some horses and other animals did not survive.

Two situations angered me. The first was seven cats dying locked inside a home after the owners evacuated. The second was two horses dying locked in their stable after the owners evacuated. There was no need for any of these nine to have died. If the owners asked for help, someone would have responded. No one except the owners knew they were left behind until after the fire burned through. The idea of abandoning animals who depend upon you infuriates me, but I also know there is not enough disaster planning in our county and almost no coverage of the brave volunteers who would have rescued these animals in time to save their lives. We’re doing better than we have in the past, but we need to do better still.

Equestrian Trails Incorporated (ETI) has a volunteer rescue team that aids in natural disasters. This team began in the 1970s on an informal basis and was later formalized. I am proud I was part of the original informal group. We formed because there were no government agencies that would undertake the formidable task of contacting horse and other animal owners who love living in the canyons that surround Los Angeles. Eventually, we managed to convince the Los Angeles Department of Animal Control (LADAC) this should be an important part of their community responsibilities.

Although some horses and other animals did not survive, the fact that most did is amazing given the fury and speed of this arson-set blaze that is still burning and has consumed 164,000 acres already. We can thank the army of volunteers who now work with the LADAC and ETI for the well-being of all the animals whose lives have been spared.

Other incredible videos of the fire can be viewed here.

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