California Wildfires Spur Horse Rescues

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
October 25, 2007

As wildfires continue to scorch San Diego County, California, animal rescue groups are working around the clock to save horses left behind.

Dozens of volunteers with the Tijuana Valley Equestrian Association sprang into action after fires first broke out on Sunday. As of Thursday, 23 fires across southern California had burned more than 460,000 acres (186,155 hectares) and destroyed nearly 1,600 homes.

The group's chair, John Gabaldon, has fielded calls from all over the county and is helping coordinate rescue efforts.

So far volunteers have placed about 300 horses on private ranches in the Imperial Beach area, near the Mexican border, Gabaldon said.

Often the volunteers must pick up horses when the owner isn't home or has already evacuated, he said.

"Some of the horses are marked, so we know where the owners are," he said. "[But] some are unmarked so it's going to be a chore to figure out [ownership]."

Thousands of evacuated horses are likely being housed at private ranches and farms. (See photos of the animal evacuees.)

A Monumental Task

The San Diego Humane Society estimates 15,000 large and small animals are in official evacuation centers countywide.

The semi-rural county's high concentration of horses is challenging during disasters, said Lt. Dan DeSousa of San Diego County Animal Control, the lead agency coordinating rescue efforts.

In these fires, as in past disasters, horse owners without transportation for their animals have been a "big problem," he said.

"What we've been trying to emphasize from [the fire] four years ago is if you have horses, have a trailer," he said. "And make sure these horses know how to load into a trailer."

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