SAN MARCOS — This Oct. 22 marked a particularly poignant anniversary for the handful of San Marcos volunteers who, with the help of two park rangers, turned Walnut Grove Park into a sanctuary for dozens of displaced horses last year.
When the Witch Creek and Harris fires broke out Oct. 21, 2007, thousands were ordered to evacuate East County before escape became impossible. Many of the residents of this rural backcountry were horse owners, and they faced the daunting challenge of shuttling their frightened animals out along smoky roads.
Many of the horses were taken to Lakeside or the Del Mar Fairgrounds. Another important refuge was Walnut Grove Park in northern San Marcos. Nicole Martino, then a high school junior who lived next door to the park, recalled how the first refugees that night brought nothing but the clothes on their backs and the horses in their trailers. Martino and her mother quickly turned out to lend a hand.
“We brought out water and our hay,” Martino said. “They came with absolutely nothing and had to buy hay as soon as they got there but everything was closed because of the fires.”
Kendra Wellington, who is now in ninth grade, recalled how she and her fellow volunteers were tasked with unloading horses, restless and quarrelsome with fear, from cramped trailers.
“It was hot because of the fires,” Kendra said. “Everybody was wearing a mask that had one. Every time someone brought in more horses, we would rush to help. A lot of them were hot and sweaty because they were scared and had come from the flames right then and there.”
A local feed store donated bermuda hay and one volunteer brought apples and carrots. “It was very friendly,” Martino said. “The park rangers and everyone who brought horses were very nice. Everyone was helping each other out.”
Susan Harris, owner of the White Horse Ranch in Escondido and riding instructor for the two girls, was one of the many who fled her home that night, transporting her eight horses to Del Mar in two trips, which took until dawn to complete.
The next afternoon, the exhausted refugee got a call from Quinn Proffer, one of her students who lived near Lake Hodges. His neighbors, Tom and Julia McGrath, were on vacation and their horses hadn’t been evacuated. Harris and her friend Jay Weseloh decided to drive into the fire zone to rescue them.
“It was really terrifying, actually,” Harris said. “Going to Lake Hodges, there was fire coming towards the area and they’d already evacuated the area. The police saw the horse trailer and let us through.”
They loaded three of the skittish horses into their trailer, forced for lack of space to leave the rest. Encountering a Humane Society representative on their way out, Harris explained the situation and asked if the group could bring more trailers and help evacuate the rest of the animals.
Coming back up the smoky road was just as hair-raising as driving in. “The horses were pretty terrified, we were pretty terrified,” Harris said. “I didn’t actually drive with flames on either side of the road. I have friends who did, but they didn’t have horse trailers,” she added with a smile.
Del Mar and Lakeside were filled to capacity, leaving San Marcos as the only open county refuge for horses. The three horses Harris rescued joined the approximately 50 that were already there.
“They were scared at first, but they calmed down a lot,” Martino said. “We let them hang out with my horses. The rest of the horses calmed them down.”
Harris remained at the park with her students and stood by in case of another rescue call, but no more were received.
When the McGraths returned to their property, they found their house gone and their barn singed, but they were shocked to find no horses inside. After their neighbor explained what had happened, they drove up to San Marcos to collect their saved animals.
“They were really very, very thankful for everything,” Martino said.