Nine barns at San Luis Rey Training Center were destroyed in a fire Dec. 7

Nine barns at San Luis Rey Training Center were destroyed in a fire Dec. 7

Jeremy Balan

San Luis Rey Horsemen Faced Brutal Challenges in Fire

Road closures, windy conditions led to a recipe for disaster.

The morning of Dec. 13, nearly a week after the devastating fire at San Luis Rey Training Center, the smell still works its way through your nostrils and grips the back of your throat.

It's not reminiscent of a burning log in a fireplace or a campfire. It's foreign, more like the smell of charred plastic. It lingers like the memories of what happened Dec. 7, and those who work at the Bonsall, Calif., facility are still trying to grapple with what exactly transpired that afternoon.

Life at Del Mar, where most of the evacuated Thoroughbreds from San Luis Rey have been relocated, has moved on as much as it can, as the seaside racetrack officially converted from an evacuation center to a training center Wednesday night. Trifecta Equine Athletic Center, which sits just across the street from San Luis Rey and once had more than 100 evacuated horses, is down to about 10, with four still needing medical care at the rehabilitation facility.

As you walk through the security gate at the front of San Luis Rey and look straight ahead, the grounds look the same as they did Dec. 6. Many of the elevated adobe barns at San Luis Rey could be operational at any time, once power gets restored throughout the facility.

A look to the right, however, snaps you into the reality of what occurred during the fire. Several metal barn roofs took such intense heat that they transformed into ungodly, twisted shapes. Other barns simply collapsed from the fire.

How everything transpired that day has swirled in a mix of facts, speculation, and misinformation online and in other venues. Many have wondered why the 450-475 Thoroughbred racehorses and ponies on the grounds were not evacuated sooner. Others have insinuated that more could have been done. But the recollections from those who were on the ground and directly involved in the evacuation effort paint a complicated picture.

Reports from those on the ground, including from San Luis Rey head of security Hugo Lara, reveal at least two complicating factors that hampered the evacuation effort, and those factors were backed up by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

The first aspect was road closures surrounding San Luis Rey, in an area of northern San Diego County that features limited roadway options. Reports from horsemen on the ground, that horse trailers were at the ready just outside San Luis Rey and were held back for a time because of road closures, were confirmed by Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff.

From the Cal Fire perspective, the roads needed to be closed to aid the evacuation of people in the area and to enable emergency vehicles to move as freely as possible. Those restrictions impeded the efforts to get as many horses safely away from San Luis Rey as quickly as possible. Forty-six horses died at the facility during and after the fire.

"The fire was moving so fast, so staying ahead of it was a challenge," Tolmachoff said. "The biggest challenge was the number of horses. You can only imagine how many vehicles it would have taken to get the amount of horses there out and to safety.

"The facility, for what they had to deal with, did the best they could. ... It was the best outcome they could have had. To a horse owner or horse lover, their horses are just as important as people are, but as a department, we have to consider human life first and foremost. That's not to say we don't consider (animals) at all."

Lara led the effort on the ground and served as acting general manager during the crisis at San Luis Rey, while keeping in constant contact with San Luis Rey general manager Kevin Habell, who was on vacation in Las Vegas at the time of the fire, but got to back to San Luis Rey that night.

Initially concern wasn't high, because there weren't high winds in the area. But in an instant, the winds kicked up. Lara said gusts got so strong "you couldn't even see straight. You couldn't even see where you were going."

"Our maintenance department was fighting the fire before the fire department got there," Lara said. "We had our water trucks up there as soon as possible spraying water. Fires kept popping up on our property and from there, all hell broke loose.

"Our guys, grooms, and trainers were all helping fighting the fire. It was a hectic mess. When the fire was back (near the border of the property), I asked Cal Fire if we needed to evacuate. They said no. Then the fire came back in another spot, and I asked if we needed to evacuate. They said it was OK. Then the sheriff showed pulled up and said, 'evacuate now.'

"How are we supposed to evacuate? We have all these horses here."

With mixed messages coming from authorities, horsemen and grooms were put into the position to decide whether to follow orders, evacuate, and leave their horses behind, or to stay. According to several accounts, some did leave, but most did not. A call was made to horse transportation companies, but many vehicles were more than two hours away.

"At that point, the palm trees were on fire," Lara said.

The palm trees—which line so many of the barns, paths, and roads at San Luis Rey and are pervasive in the surrounding area—along with the whipping wind, changed everything. As embers hit the dry palm fronds, many of the trees quickly caught fire, and the effect was almost exponential. The trees on fire released embers of their own, which dropped down on the barns. Other embers blew into barns from the sides, carried by the wind.

Tolmachoff classified the type of fire that hit San Luis Rey a "dirty burn." The fire didn't move in one wave from a single direction. The wind carried embers from near and far, and caused multiple fires to spring up in different spots.

"The wind-driven fires like that, we call them 'dirty burns,'" she said. "These types of fires, it's embers pushing (them) along, not a huge fire head. You're chasing it—you're chasing spots trying to put it out."

Lara estimated it was a span of seven minutes from when the palm trees caught on fire to when much of the San Luis Rey barn area was up in flames. Eventually some vehicles got into the training center to get horses out, including small trailers from the horse community in the Bonsall area. Even if the larger trailers were allowed in at that point, though, some horsemen said they're unsure how much it would have helped, considering so many horses were let out of their stalls and were running free to avoid the flames.

"I've got to give it to the community. They really came together," Lara said. "There were two-horse, four-horse, six-horse trailers coming in with regular people to help us out."

The palm trees on the property at San Luis Rey—425, to be exact (Habell counted)—are going to be cut down. Although the trees may not have been the only factor that led to the devastation, they were contributing factor. Removing them is something those responsible for the facility can control, after close to a week of feeling helpless.

"Of course we're going to get rid of them now," Habell said. "A firefighter told me that was a knee-jerk reaction, and I understand that, but they're coming out."

Driving around the facility Wednesday, Habell continuously expressed his amazement in the indiscriminate nature of the fire, how fast and powerfully it worked its way through the barn area, and what it touched and what it left. Trainer Edward Freeman's barn was entirely burned, but a washing machine and ice machine, in the middle of it all, were left untouched.

"It's just bizarre," Habell said. "It's twisted. The poor firemen are fighting the best they can, but these spots kept coming up."

A large, imposing man, Habell had to catch himself multiple times Wednesday during a tour of San Luis Rey. Little things—like a note and plush horse that was dropped off from a local girl—brought on emotions, but the hardest part was driving through the most decimated portions of the barn area, a place that was so full of life and action just a week ago.

"This place—it's like it's mine," said Habell, who oversees the training center for The Stronach Group. "Every time I look at it, it's just ..."

Although the mind may wander as to what can be done in the future and what could have been done better Dec. 7, those involved largely assessed that, in a desperate situation, people did the best they could.

"There were guys who held their cool, there were guys who froze up, and there were guys that freaked and walked out the gate—and I don't hold that against them," said trainer Brian Kozak. "You never know how you're going to react until you're in it.

"If I had to grade the San Luis Rey team, I gotta give them an 'A.' It was just extreme circumstances. A week later, we can all reflect how everybody coulda, shoulda, woulda, but at that time and at that moment, they did a good job."

"Everybody did as much as they could," said trainer Doug O'Neill's assistant, Leandro Mora. "You had to use your intuition as a horseman, when everything happened in an instant."

With all of the obstacles and challenges, the vast majority of horsemen stayed at San Luis Rey throughout the fire and did what they could to help their horses and their neighbors' horses. Despite the warnings and dangers they encountered, the tales of bravery are almost too many to count.

"They'd have had to shoot people to get them to stop (evacuating horses). Nobody listened to anybody who was going, 'Evacuate right now,'" Kozak said. "F--- off. If you're worried, you can go."