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The Princess Visits The Scream Zone:
What My Horse and I Experienced During the San Diego Wildfires

by Stephanie Sides

I was driving to my book club, south on Highway 5, one Sunday afternoon late in October 2007 when I noticed how bad the air was. It was thick with that awful, yellow-gray smoke we’ve come to associate with late fall. It was the same way coming home. I had enough experience to know it was likely to get worse. Not that I’d yet translated that worry into any emergency planning or putting a proper home insurance policy in place.

The fire had started in Ramona, 30 miles to the east. Overnight, by early Monday morning, it was threatening my area. That’s how quickly a fire can travel.

It was due to the fierce Santa Ana winds we’re prone to in southern California. That’s when the winds reverse their normal pattern and instead come from the interior desert blowing toward the coast. The humidity is very low, and the winds are hot, dry, and typically tens of miles an hour in force. The conditions are ideal for fire. That’s an oxymoron: ideal and fire. It all sounds so matter of fact.

There’s no stopping these winds. They call it a red-flag condition, which smacks of the simple-minded, color-coded system to estimate the danger of an imminent terrorist attack. But the simple-mindedness belies the terror. Whoever got The New Yorker issue of November 5, 2007, saw the cover that conveyed something of the terror you feel when fire is on its way.

The effects of a fire may be as random as those from a terrorist attack, until you consult with Mother Nature. She threatens a whole swath of people at a time, if you’re lined up in Her fire vector. Certainly She has some predictability, which the meteorologists claim to understand. But then Her winds can change. As we learned after the fact: The winds shifted in our behalf within 100 yards of entering our watershed at which point all bets for our house would have been off.

Over the next couple of days, nearly two dozen fires raged through various parts of southern California from the border with Mexico to northern Los Angeles county, including Malibu, which since has been hit, under the same Santa Ana conditions, by a much worse fire. Many of these fires were believed to be caused by arson.

My neighbor called me early that Monday morning to tell me a housing development five miles away was being threatened and that we were likely going to have to evacuate.

This was reminiscent of 2003, which we’d experienced together, except this time it was more serious. Fire is always a matter of relevance. The air can be dirty, but I’m not personally threatened. Or I am. And I have to evacuate. To a friend’s house. Or to a hotel. Can I find one? Then it’s somehow all over in a surprisingly short period of time. I return. My house is ok. My neighborhood is intact. Or I lose all I own. And my neighborhood’s wiped out. Or only every other house. That’s the layering of devastation I’ve seen, until now from afar.

Then there’s the layering of how the insurance companies respond. Thankfully, but sadly due to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, they seem by inclination or under threat by the government to have become more proactive and forthcoming. The difference in response from 2003 has been noticeable. At least if you read their full-page ads in the Los Angeles Times. I like to take them at their public word. You only experience the reality once you file a claim.

When my neighbor called, my first thought was my horse, nearer in harm’s way by my neighbor’s description than I was. The 23-year-old had become known as “the princess.” Ismael, my trainer’s right hand man, named her that. I spoke reasonable Spanish, so this designation became our foundation to get to know each other and improve my Spanish. He sometimes called us "un par de princesas" [a pair of princesses]).

I’d had Eva for 19 years; I’d bought her when she was a four-year-old. She was a brown, 15.3-hand Thoroughbred who’d never gone to the track. Instead, she’d been trained as a hunter and, for the last 12 years, for dressage, to which she was better suited. It was a more intellectual endeavor; her trainer and I agreed she not only liked but needed that kind of challenge.

I called the barn owner. He said the barn was being evacuated to the Del Mar racetrack a few miles to the west. Thank goodness we had such a large, secure facility nearby for most of the horses in the area. I wondered at the time: What if the fire burned all the way to the racetrack?

But the area a few miles east of that facility was in the process of being scraped to the dirt by some odd building contract to strip the area and reform it as part of a continuous west-to-east park extending for tens of miles. The stripping had left it bare of any burnable vegetation. Watching the Mad Max earth movers doing their thing over the previous several months, we decided that the company was making a semi-illegal bundle on this fool-headed endeavor. I wondered what the field mice, squirrels, birds, and other wildlife thought of it, as they were being driven out, probably never to return.

So I headed to the barn to help the horse evacuation, asking my boyfriend to arrange for our house evacuation: The only thing I cared about was our two cats. If it had just been I, I would have put them in their cat carriers and taken them with me, not planning to return until it was all over. I felt lucky I was not alone this time.

As I drove the 10 minutes to the barn, I noticed a surprising number of horse trailers, small and large, on the roads. When I arrived around 8:15 AM, most of my friends were already there, making me wonder: Why had I not been on top of this earlier? Surely, I knew there was some danger and never planned to rely on others.

My horse was beyond out of control. Her one neighbor, a young gelding I affectionately called Baby Boy, had already been evacuated. So she was all alone. I’m sure she thought she was going to be left behind, which is probably a fate worse than death to a herd animal like a horse, though in this case it might also have meant death. She could hear the distress of other horses in the various barns and could tell they were being loaded onto trailers that left. And they were not coming back. I’m sure she knew that.

The wind was blowing as hard as I’d ever experienced. The air quality was poor, eerie. Humans and horses alike, we all felt incredibly vulnerable, not having any idea how this was going to turn out.

I got to Eva’s stall with boots to protect her legs during trailering; we didn’t have time for more standard leg wrapping.

She was wild, rearing, bucking. Though also clearly glad to see me. She wasn’t about to hurt me since I represented her only way out of this situation.

When in crisis, you think back to whatever training you’ve had that might somehow serve you. I harkened back to a couple of Monty Roberts’ seminars I’d attended and remembered him saying something to the audience about the importance of keeping his own heartbeat at a low, constant rate even as an unknown horse was literally running him down. I tried to do that. I told Eva that I couldn’t do anything to help her until she calmed down. Like Roberts, I stood my ground.

Eva stopped dead in front of me, her horse equivalent of saying, ok, I’m with you, now what? In our 19 years together, we’d figured out how to communicate when it mattered.

As I put on her boots, I thought: Thank god this is the one horse that loves to trailer. She typically couldn’t jump on the trailer fast enough. She was very anti-type that way. If she felt frightened, she’d typically turn toward the threatening thing and investigate.

I put her halter on and led her out of her paddock. She was still nervous, jumping around, but not enough to be dangerous in spite of the horrible conditions. Once I’d walked her for five minutes, it was if we did this everyday: She was with me and other people she knew, and we were all ok. We were just waiting for the next trailer to take her to safety. The wind continued to blow – 40- or 50-miles-per-hour. Maybe the wind was worse than that. It was hard to sort real facts from perceived danger at the time.

A barn friend wrote my phone numbers on Eva’s lone white hoof with a felt pen; my trainer wrote Eva’s name and my last name on duct tape and attached it to her halter. With potentially 3,500 horses at the track, horses in such a situation could easily become lost from their owners. Now I know to do these things. Because there will be a next time.

I studied the loading process: I needed to concentrate on something besides the danger. The trailer had a low step but no ramp because it was used for moving jumps, not horses. But the driver clearly knew what he was doing. He carefully picked the order in which to load the six remaining horses, putting the heaviest in the middle and Eva, as one of the smaller ones, on the outside, next to last. I was glad about that as I liked to load Eva as close to last as possible: She was an impatient horse, and I always worried what she might do if she felt trapped, especially at the end of the ride when she became more unpredictable. All the horses were show veterans, so they marched on as if they did it every day. They were a good influence – nothing to worry about. They were the last horses to be trailered out of the barn.

When we got to the racetrack, we were faced with a flashing electronic sign: FULL FOR LARGE ANIMALS. How could the facility have filled up so quickly? It was only 10:30. Now what?

We waited just a short time until they opened up The Scream Zone, an area set aside during the two weeks before Halloween for people to drive through and be scared. Why anyone would pay to be scared escaped me at the time. But isn't that what horror movies are all about? I don't pay for those either.

Right outside Eva’s stall was an old mustang car and a simulated dead body missing half its face smashed into the windshield. She wasn’t frightened by all the horror set up for fun and profit; her issue, as I knew it would be, was having to live in the confines of a stall. She had no intention of going in. That was the real horror for her. And would she even have a home to return to? But she was with enough familiar two- and four-legged faces that she finally decided to comply.

Once I finished getting Eva settled, I got a call from my boyfriend who’d gotten the reverse-911 call telling us to evacuate our house. Everyone on the street was leaving. We met mid-way at a gas station on Highway 5. It seemed as if all of San Diego County were on fire. So we decided to head north where we thought the air would be cleaner. We ended up in San Clemente, getting the penultimate room in the first hotel we stopped at. I didn’t tell them about the cats because I wasn’t about to negotiate. It was a room, on the top floor, that seemed to be rarely used. Which was fine with us, since we didn’t want to be disturbed and we were worried the cats might escape.

So we hunkered down and watched fire coverage on TV. For hours. There was just nothing else to do. But after so much of that, you just can’t stand it. You want to stay informed, but it’s too horrible and, in many instances, too stupid, to watch. Like reporters watching their own homes burn down. That seemed to be the new thing in fire coverage, compared with 2003. Anything for a story, I thought. Or was it a sham? We had no way of knowing.

But the coverage was of the fires in Los Angeles, not San Diego. So we had no real information about our area. Oddly, we got more information from the national news broadcasts. And then we tried to sleep — between the various phone calls that came in from odd parts of our lives. It was surprising, just like with weddings, births, and deaths: not the people you’d expect to hear from.

The next day I was eager to get back to the racetrack. I figured Eva would be a nervous wreck, stuck in that stall. When I arrived, her head was weaving back and forth over her stall gate. This was an errant behavior that affected bored horses stuck in small enclosures. I knew it could also turn into a bad habit.

I got Eva out and walked her for an hour, up and down every last barn aisle, searching for familiar horses and people. Barn aisle AA through ZZ, then into the Scream Zone of A though Z. Eva wanted to see everything. To own it. She was also fascinated by the racetrack through the chain-link fencing. It was as if she knew what it was, even though she’d never gone to race training, much less been on the track. Her first owner knew she wasn’t going to run her heart out for anyone. I wondered, though, if she might have spent some time on the track as a weanling. That its familiarity gave her some comfort.

This walking was the cathartic part of the fire experience. I ran into horse friends I hadn’t seen in years. Some were still doing the same things. Others had older kids I hardly recognized. We exchanged short updates on our lives that lasted as long as our anxious horses would allow. I heard stories about how some barns had only moved their best horses to the track, leaving the remaining ones to weather the fire however they were able to. As if some horses were more important than others. Eva would have been in that latter category had she been at a different barn. Had circumstances been otherwise, would I have been able to convince someone to evacuate my horse who saw no need to do so? That eventuality had never occurred to me.

That first morning, as I was heading toward my car after getting Eva settled, I saw another horse, looked over, and discovered it was Tish. I asked the fellow leading her, and he said he didn’t know her name. That was common in this situation. But I knew it to be Miss Eva’s best friend and former neighbor who’d recently gone to live at another barn. So I made sure the two horses became reacquainted while they were at the racetrack. It was an intense experience for both of them. For me, too, watching. It was the only way of bringing a little bit of hope out of the situation.

Another friend I ran into had a horse even older than Eva: Tomi, aged 25, Eva’s first boyfriend. He’d always been so gentlemanly, and, being the alpha mare that Eva was, she was particular about which geldings she allowed any familiarity. But I didn’t have Eva with me, so, even though I told Tomi’s owner where Eva was located, I don’t know if she ever brought him by to visit. I somehow failed to ask for his stall number to bring Eva to see him. This situation just didn’t encourage logical thinking.

At the track, I saw the smallest of miniature horses: He couldn’t have stood 18 inches at his withers. I also saw a baby zebra from the Wild Animal Park.

I saw many horses behaving entirely properly. But I also saw one that came off a trailer with his legs bloodied, then literally ran over his owner. I helped her up. She was ok, though a bit startled. I think we all were.

Three days later we brought the horses home.

My house, neighborhood, and barn were all intact.

I spent time thanking people in whatever ways I could – a restaurant gift certificate to the jumper trainer at my barn who’d overseen the evacuation and cash to the guys who work for him who had taken care of my horse. I didn’t know who had done what. It didn’t matter. All I knew was that we were all home, we were all safe, two- and four-leggeds alike, and that was a newly precious thing.

I asked about whether to expect a bill from the track. They had my address. I would have been happy to pay. But in spite of my insistent inquiries, no one could or would give me any answers. It all seemed to come free. The racetrack was a state-run facility, so my best guess was that it was tax dollars that paid for it. I never did get a bill. And for those that had actually incurred out-of-pocket expenses on my behalf: I think they were just so glad to be through the back side of the experience that it just didn’t occur to them to ask anyone for reimbursement.

I’m reminded of the notion of “pay it forward.” I plan to do that for the next little while.