Fires in both Northern and Southern California are putting horses in jeopardy

Fires in both Northern and Southern California are putting horses in jeopardy

Wally Skalij

Glen Ellen Vocational Academy Threatened by CA Fire

Northern California's oldest Thoroughbred retirement and rehab facility in peril.

The Glen Ellen Vocational Academy, Northern California's oldest Thoroughbred retirement and rehabilitation facility, is perilously threatened by the one of the large fires raging this week in the Sonoma County region.

GEVA owner Pam Berg said she and her neighbors were forced to immediately evacuate by officials in the early morning hours of Oct. 9 as the Nuns Fire, as it is being called, burned rapidly thanks to powerful winds and dry conditions on the surrounding ridge. She and her volunteers were forced to leave behind the 34 horses currently on the 8 1/2-acre property, situated in the rural hills near Jack London State Park. Most of the animals are off-track Thoroughbreds.

"I was awakened by a neighbor's phone call at about 1 a.m.," Berg said Oct. 10. "I went outside and it looked like the entire ridge was in flames. It was terrifying." 

Since then, most of the roads in the Glen Ellen area, including Highway 12, the main thoroughfare, have been closed. Berg, a former racetrack steward in Northern California who founded GEVA in 1995, has been staying with one of her volunteers in the nearby town of Petaluma.

By the morning of Oct. 10, the winds had receded, she said, but officials were maintaining strict control of the area surrounding the farm. Unfortunately, she said, the weather forecast calls for the winds to pick up again.

"Right now the conditions are perfect but if the wind starts up again, all it would take are some sparks," she said. 

The farm's paddocks, she noted, are dirt, though there are many trees that could catch fire given the chance.

"I tried to get there this morning (to check on the horses), but the roads are still closed," Berg said. "They wouldn't even let us walk in because of downed power lines. They told us it could be a number of days."

Before evacuating, Berg said she opened the paddocks, so the horses are loose and can get to a central pond paddock on the property. There is also a small lake on a neighbor's ranch they might reach if necessary. In the meantime, she said she feels helpless. 

"That's all we can hope if the fire comes, they'll go to that safety zone," she said. 

"We so appreciate the sympathy and prayers we've received. But if we can't get in, there's nothing much we can do—just hope the horses are smart enough to move to safety."

So far, the Nuns Fire has consumed more than 5,000 acres, making it one of the smaller blazes in the region, where upwards of 100,000 acres have been scorched so far, according to reports from Sonoma and the neighboring counties of Napa, Mendocino, and Lake. The fires have prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency. 

Fifteen people have been confirmed dead, according to news reports, the majority in Sonoma County. 

Meanwhile in Southern California, Los Alamitos Race Course has opened temporary stalls to horses displaced by Canyon Fire 2, the biggest fire to hit Orange county in nearly a decade. Fairplex Park is also hosting evacuated horses.