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Saving Livestock a Team Effort

Animal lovers in Ventura County rescue horses, sheep, dogs -- even llamas and ostriches -- from approaching flames.

October 29, 2003|Tracy Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Equestrian trainer Randy Cano started to worry when he saw flames licking the hills near his Chatsworth home earlier this week, though it wasn't his home he was worried about.

Rather, Cano feared the wildfire was bolting toward 45 horses in his care at the nearby Bell Canyon Equestrian Center in eastern Ventura County.

The question was how to evacuate the high-priced show horses quickly and safely. The answer came in the form of volunteers, many of whom Cano didn't know, who showed up with trailers to lend a hand.

"I can't tell you how impressed I am that so many people came to the rescue," Cano said Tuesday. "We got them evacuated in about an hour's time. It was absolutely amazing how much help we had."

Similar stories are being heard across horse-rich Ventura County, where upscale stables and backyard barns tucked into rural valleys have faced a terrifying threat in recent days as fires have engulfed portions of Simi Valley, Moorpark, Santa Paula, Fillmore and Piru.

Department of Animal Regulation director Kathy Jenks said her staff and hundreds of volunteers have been scrambling to rescue creatures large and small since the fires broke out late last week.

More than 2,000 horses have been evacuated in recent days, taken to private barns or stables at the county fairgrounds in Ventura, Jenks said. Pigs, goats, sheep, cattle, llamas and ostriches have also been relocated, and about 410 dogs remain sheltered in Camarillo.

Jenks said freeway closures and limited access to ranches have made evacuations difficult, yet few injuries or deaths of livestock have been reported.

Students and staff at Moorpark College's renowned teaching zoo evacuated apes, baboons and other exotic creatures to a Target store parking lot over the weekend. Most of the animals were returned to campus after the immediate fire danger passed.

And rescuers removed 400 birds from a sanctuary in Box Canyon on Monday as the Simi fire headed south.

Jenks said the eclectic canyon community posed a unique challenge because "every backyard has a couple of goats and a sheep, we really don't know what is hidden back in there."

For decades, the county's picturesque rolling canyons have attracted people looking for a slice of rural paradise. But those remote settings have proved treacherous in recent days.

Deborah Kemper, who owns an equine veterinary practice with her husband, Kent Sullivan, is treating six horses who suffered burns as the fire roared down the Tierra Rejada Valley.

The horses, which were loose in a large pasture in the Solano Verde Estates area, were burned on their legs, hindquarters, faces and bellies. Kemper said it appeared they were injured while running through burning brush.

But, overall, the veterinarian said, the injury toll has been very low, considering how quickly the fire swept into the valley.

Thousand Oaks resident Alex Hymes narrowly escaped the blaze late Saturday as flames threatened the barn near Moorpark where she boards three horses. With burning pine trees raining down hot embers, she sent two horses out by trailer.

"There were 20-foot flames on one side of the car," said Hymes, who stayed behind with the third horse. "There were people running around like headless chickens not knowing what to do."

The fire passed the stable, but the danger was far from over. Within hours, flames were bearing down on the Somis ranch where Hymes' husband, Tony, took the other two horses and they were forced to evacuate a second time. After two days at the Ventura fairgrounds, the couple took the horses back to Moorpark on Tuesday.

Cano, the Bell Canyon trainer, evacuated his horses to a stable in Malibu and plans to keep them there until the danger has passed.

"I think we are out of the woods," he said. "[But] I am not going to bring the horses back until I know the fires are out."

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