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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRES

L.A. Roundup Moves Hundreds of Horses Out of Harm's Way

Local animal control officials and dozens of volunteers handle the massive job. Pierce College is one of the temporary homes.

October 29, 2003|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

Thick smoke lingered ominously near Laurence Eaglefeather's house in the Santa Susana Mountains.

But Eaglefeather and his Tennessee walking horse were safe Tuesday, surrounded by nearly 100 other horses that had been evacuated from the nearby canyons and brought to the stables of Pierce College on the floor of the San Fernando Valley.

The horses were among more than 500 in and around the city of Los Angeles that were moved out of harm's way since Saturday with the assistance of city and county animal control officials. As of Tuesday, the massive operation -- with its capacity for chaos, panic and danger -- had gone rather smoothly, due in part to dozens of civilian volunteers trained by Los Angeles County in such skills as disaster psychology and equine first aid.

Eaglefeather, 57, said he is not sure if the woman who removed his horse was a volunteer or an animal services worker. But he said he was grateful when she pulled up to his home in Dog Patch Canyon with a trailer, offering to move his horse to a safer place as wildfires raged in the hills nearby.

"Not to get fancy, but I could have kissed her yesterday," Eaglefeather said. "In a city of the angels, they are the angels -- them and the firefighters."

Although it goes unnoticed by many urbanites, the Los Angeles horse culture continues to thrive, despite encroachment by suburbia and strip malls. And it is with the help of horse lovers that animal control officials have improved their evacuation strategies when fire rips through the rugged canyons at the edges of the metropolis.

It wasn't always so. Sioux Eaglefeather, Laurence's wife, remembers a sickening, surreal scene in Chatsworth in the early 1970s when embers from a massive blaze killed many panicked horses and pets. She also remembers some horse owners being forced to choose between walking their animals to safety or staying with their threatened homes.

Last weekend, however, a well-coordinated team of animal rescue workers and volunteers crisscrossed the region's hot spots, offering their help and responding to more than 500 calls for evacuation services. Aside from the horses, officials impounded 38 cats, 75 dogs, a llama, two peacocks and about 10 barnyard fowl, said Jackie David, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services.

While all of the horses at Pierce College in Woodland Hills had been matched with their respective owners, some smaller animals were unclaimed. Owners seeking lost pets can call (818) 756-9325 for information.

The evacuation effort is perhaps the largest since the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Ron Wechsler, director of Pierce College's equine program, said there have been a few tense moments caused by high-strung people and high-strung animals. And, he said, a few horses had to be turned away because they had not been properly trained -- a common problem in a city full of urban cowboys.

But most horse owners have acted responsibly, he said, and many have been selfless, helping their fellow equine lovers and out-of-town neighbors who had left their animals in the care of others.

"When there's a need," Wechsler said, "everybody seems to lend a hand."

Pierce College, founded in 1947 as an agricultural college, still has numerous horse stables and corrals.

In the east San Fernando Valley, horses were evacuated to the Hansen Dam Recreation Area in Lake View Terrace and Orcas Park in Sunland.

By Tuesday afternoon, many homeowners from Topanga and the canyons of the Santa Susana Mountains had returned to retrieve their horses from the college. But county Animal Care and Control officials were gearing up to help with animal evacuations in Stevenson Ranch as fire threatened the tract homes of the west Santa Clarita Valley.

Laurence Eaglefeather -- who stayed in his home overnight to try to protect it from a fire that never came -- went to Pierce just to feed his 7-year-old mare, Sweet Annie. He was hoping to take her home by nightfall.

His visit evinced the enduring proximity of city and country cultures in Los Angeles -- and this week, the proximity of safety and danger.

In a dusty corral, the mare snorted and high-stepped as Eaglefeather clucked to her and spoke soothing words in Coyotero, the Apache dialect of his father.

Not far from the college's bucolic swath of horse pens and grazing sheep, the glass and steel high-rises of the Warner Center rose into a blue sky. Farther north, the rugged Santa Susanas were barely visible through the thick tufts of smoke.

Eaglefeather, who has lived in the area for half a century, remembers picking fruit when the Valley floor was covered in orange groves. If there has been anything positive about the fires, he said, it has been the selfless response of people like the animal workers.

"This is a taste of the old way," he said, "when people were loved and respected and cared for their neighbors."

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