BONSALL, Calif. — At least 25 horses died Thursday when flames from the wind-driven Lilac Fire swept through the San Luis Rey Training Center in Bonsall, where nearly 500 horses are stabled, officials said.
The fire quickly engulfed eight barns when it erupted Thursday afternoon, and while an unknown number of horses were evacuated, fire authorities eventually declared conditions unsafe for vehicles to enter the area to pick up the remaining horses, according to Mike Marten, the public information officer of the California Horse Racing Board.
“Individuals at (San Luis Rey) risked their lives in efforts to free the horses from their stalls and herd them into the safer infield area and training track,” Marten said. “However, it is believed that approximately 25 horses perished in the fire.”
One trainer, Cliff Sise, told news teams that one of those dead was his horse, which he tried to rescue from a burning barn.
“It was dark, everything was hot and she wouldn’t come out,” Sise said. “I opened the pen and tried to get behind her and get her out, and she wouldn’t get out. She burned to death that quick.”
When safe for the horse vans to again enter the facility, most of the remaining horses were taken 35 miles south to Del Mar Racetrack where personnel and volunteers are adequately caring for them, Marten said.
The Del Mar Fairgrounds was opened as an evacuation center for livestock. By 10 p.m., more than 600 horses were sheltering at the fairgrounds, and officials said there were stalls available for 1,000 more. County officials urged livestock owners to evacuate their animals well ahead of time.
Officials in Del Mar said evacuees are encouraged to bring bedding, feed and horse identification.
Several people in the area’s horse community put out word, via social media, that experienced horse people were being asked to go to the fairgrounds to assist with housing the animals.
Britney Eurton, a reporter with the cable horse racing network TVG, tweeted that Del Mar officials were preparing to take in as many San Luis Rey horses as possible.
As of 7:30 p.m. some 30 horses at San Luis Rey were still in the process of being evacuated and an unknown number of horses housed in pastures surrounding the property were unaccounted for as darkness prevented a thorough search of those areas, according to racing officials.
California Horse Racing Board personnel will be on the scene early Friday to work with the professionals and volunteers at San Luis Rey.
Due to the fire, Los Alamitos Race Course in Cypress announced that it is canceling its Friday afternoon racing program out of respect for the horses and people involved.
Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux tweeted photos of conditions at the training center, including one of horses grouped together in thick smoke.
A Facebook post by the Doug O’Neill Race Stable called the situation “unimaginable,” and said the well-known thoroughbred trainer was on his way to the area.