Horses, volunteers pour into Del Mar in wake of fires


For the first time in a decade, the Del Mar racetrack went from showcase to shelter for more than 800 horses evacuated from wildfires that broke out across Southern California last week, including the Lilac fire that decimated one of California’s premier thoroughbred training facilities.

When the Lilac fire broke out the afternoon of Dec. 7, Del Mar mobilized its disaster response and braced for evacuations on a scale not seen since the 2007 fires. One of the racetrack’s first actions was to send out word on social media calling for volunteers and donations. By midnight, some 175 volunteers had pitched in as horses arrived seeking shelter.

Many had been evacuated from the San Luis Rey Downs, a training facility in Bonsall that housed 500 thoroughbreds. Horses there were set loose as the Lilac fire engulfed the facility. Three-quarters of San Luis Rey was destroyed and nearly 50 thoroughbreds died.

At 10 a.m. Friday, Dec. 8, trucks and trailers were queued up hundreds of yards outside Stable Gate as donations of food and clothing — and even more volunteers — poured in.

George Bradvica, a fairgrounds official who helped coordinate the volunteer response, took pause as volunteers frantically divvied up apples and carrots into feed buckets before heading out to the stalls to comfort the frightened animals. Like so many of the fairgrounds’ workers, Bradvica was on site day and night throughout the crisis.

“Everyone knows what their role is,” Bradvica said. “We all got out here, we knew what we were doing, and we just started the process.”

Many of those stories were recounted Tuesday, Dec. 12, at the monthly meeting of the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which runs the fairgrounds.

“The support from the community was absolutely overwhelming,” said Russ Penniman, president of the DAA board of directors.

By the evening of Dec. 12, when officials wound down their volunteer response, more than 3,000 volunteers had applied to help out. The pile of donated clothing is so huge that it’s still being folded and sorted out. Food donations have totaled several tons.

“No one was underfed, particularly if you like pizza or apples or carrots,” Penniman said, drawing a knowing laugh from the three dozen people at the DAA meeting.

Among the audience was Dan DeSousa, the county’s animal services director, who struck a grateful note while describing the anguish animal owners feel in times of crisis.

“Knowing that they have this place here allows them to evacuate, keeps them safe, keeps the animals safe,” he told the DAA board, breaking off to choke back the emotion. “You guys are a godsend to the community and we cannot say thank you enough.”