Los Angeles Times
‘Horses can feel when you’re scared’
Because of the drought, they hadn’t planted the rice fields near the Sunfire Equestrian Center.
Because of the drought, any fire here in the ranch land and farms south of Napa (and in the Sierra and the Southland and pretty much all of California) could become THAT fire.
So, Lisa Bader, the barn manager at Sunfire, watched a fire cloud and was grateful for the buffer of 50 acres of bare-dirt-thatshould-be-rice between her pasture and the fire in the canyon above.
I had packed fire gear for the road trip, with a sinking certainty that I would use it.
We were on a detour for a radio interview when we first saw the Wragg fire up near Lake Berryessa. On my phone’s screen, I watched horses and cattle flee across burning mountains and the deployment of more than a thousand firefighters.
As soon as we took off the headphones in the Rohnert Park studio, I grabbed hiking boots and a Nomex shirt with the mopey-ness of a child getting dressed for school. In the fourth year of drought, catastrophic fires are predictable chaos to me: the evacuation orders, the press briefings, the bulldozers and helicopters and news vans.
The road trip is supposed to be about making connections and taking journalism back roads. So we decided to detour yet again — to Sunfire, which had tweeted out an open invitation to horse evacuees.
In front of the stables, Nicole Sharp was walking her horse, Murray, on a patch of grass where a sprinkler head sent out a revolving arc of spray. Nicole, who boards her horse at the stable, didn’t think they should be spending wellwater on grass.
Lisa said it was for a fire break, then copped to the truth.
“Just a tiny spot of pretty. It’s hard seeing all the pastures brown.”
Usually they keep the pastures lush and fragrant and green all year round. The horses love to graze and roll in grass.
The stables and pens were full. There were extra goats and chickens as well as horses. A deep calm of exhaustion and relief seemed to be settling over the animals and the people.
Coach Bob was gnawing on his stall. The big stallion, who won big purses in his racing career, was impatient to be fed. He’d almost gotten everyone here in big trouble the day before.
Alana, a trainer at Sunfire, lives on a ranch in the canyon on fire. As soon as she saw the first mushroom cloud of smoke, she had called everyone at the stables for help evacuating Coach Bob and five other racetrack rescues.
Lisa and her 13-year-old daughter, Amelia Christiansen, had gone straight to Alana’s ranch from a swimming pool in Napa, still in wet swimsuits. They thought they were being proactive, moving ahead of evacuation orders.
“But it’s hard to explain how fast fire moves,” Lisa said. “People don’t understand how quickly it all escalates.”
“Ash was raining down, and we were fighting the horses,” Alana said.
Amelia was leading Jack, who was rearing and pawing.
“I had to pat down all my anxiety, because horses can feel when you’re scared,” the 13-year-old said. “I had a hold of a 1,200-pound animal. The fire was the least of my worries.”
They got six horses in the trailer. But even Lisa, who everyone says can handle any animal, couldn’t get Coach Bob in. He planted his hooves. He wasn’t going anywhere.
The fire crested the ridge.
“We have to go NOW!” Lisa told the horse. He went in the trailer just as the emergency vehicles came through, loudspeakers blaring “Evacuate! Evacuate!”
They unloaded the animals at the stables. Then went back to help neighbors without trailers.
When people can’t get a trailer in time, they write their phone number on their horses’ hooves with a magic marker. Then they let them go, and hope someone calls them after the fire to tell them their horses are safe.
The numbers stay on the horses’ hooves for weeks, a reminder of a fire that came too close.