10/25/2007 11:00PM

Lending a hand in scary times

EmailDEL MAR, Calif. - The sign at the entrance of the Del Mar grandstand plaza challenged customers to "Enter San Diego's Most Haunting Experience - The Scream Zone."

Too late.

The wildfires that have been burning throughout Southern California since Oct. 21 have provided embattled residents with enough debilitating excitement to last a lifetime. Or until the next fire. Remember, it was just four years ago, in October 2003, that the Breeders' Cup carnival assembled at Santa Anita under smoke-filled skies, thanks to a deadly cluster of fires in San Diego, Orange, and Los Angeles counties.

The worst of the 2003 blazes was the Cedar fire, in the southern part of San Diego County. That one burned 280,278 acres, destroyed 2,820 homes, and killed 15 people. Some of the same ground was ravaged again this time around in the 200,000-acre Witch Creek fire, sending weary veterans of the Cedar fire fleeing once again, often with their horses in tow. And once again, the Thoroughbred racing industry provided sanctuary.

"We're starting to get pretty good at this," said Channa Mannen, assistant director of the Del Mar Fairgrounds, as activity swirled around her at the stable area offices. "The one thing I noticed this time around was that horses weren't coming in with as many burn injuries. I think the evacuation process went a lot better."

This time around, the Del Mar backstretch welcomed zebras, llamas, donkeys, and mules, as well as every imaginable size and shape of horse. Even the four barns playing host to the Scream Zone - a real fairgrounds money-maker each Halloween season - were opened to accommodate more horses.

"It's certainly different than what they're used to," said Shirley Duncan of San Marcos, as she cleaned a stall in plain view of hanging corpses, burnt-out vehicles, and severed heads. Ah, Halloween. "But I think the horses like it, for a little variety."

Del Mar also received visitations from government agencies, hard on the heels of the widespread media coverage ignited by the fires.

"The FEMA people were very impressed by the way we organized our little storeroom," Mannen said. "They also asked how we trained our volunteers. I told them we handed them a rake, and figured they'd know how to use it."

Mannen was trying hard to fight back a wry grin, but the message was clear. Horse people tend to rise to such occasions, pitching in with a selfless spirit of community. Official agencies would do well to follow the lead.

"You would not believe the response from volunteers," said George Bradvica, who runs the Del Mar off-track-betting facility and was doing double-duty, coordinating the backstretch volunteer effort. "We have barn clean-up sessions in the morning and the afternoon, and we'll have 50 people show up for each session."

To the northeast of Del Mar, Vessels Stallion Farm in Bonsall is set on more than 400 acres of prime river-bottom land. Mares roams in huge pastures that would rival any Kentucky nursery, while stallions are turned out daily in their own generous lakeside paddocks.

Beginning last Monday, when large areas of nearby horsey communities began to evacuate, Vessels opened its doors to more than a hundred four-legged refugees. Each horse got a neck tag, a number, and a pipe pen, while many of their owners set up camp with trailers and RVs in a field by the Vessels airstrip. The Vessels staff worked round the clock to help care for the new arrivals.

"I'd like to think anybody would do the same for me if I was in that position," farm owner Scoop Vessels said.

By Wednesday, a good number of the horses were leaving Vessels for their homes. Then, overnight, the farm got a call from emergency officials informing them that another hundred horses were on their way from the Camp Pendleton military outpost, where fires were racing over open range. Once again, Vessels threw open its doors.

The tales were typical, large and small. Thankfully, there were happy endings mixed with the tragic.

"Don't mind if I smoke, do you?" asked Dr. Jack Robbins, as he sat in the office at the back of his home in Rancho Santa Fe, lighting up without waiting for a reply.

Under the circumstances, a little more bad air hardly made a difference. Outside the office window, just the other side of a row of fruit trees, sat the scorched ruins of the house next door. Robbins, president of the Oak Tree Racing Association, was still a little stunned.

"Two other houses burned right along there," he said, pointing past a backyard hedge. "Don't ask me why we got so lucky. There were embers the size of baseballs on our back lawn."

Approximately 3 million people live in San Diego County, and close to a million were temporarily displaced this week by fire evacuations. That means, without exaggeration, literally everyone was affected by the disaster, whether from the stresses of road closures and evacuation advisories, to full-blown loss of home and property. For bloodstock agent Richard Cross and his wife, Virginia, it could have gone either way, with the slightest shift of wind near their home by Lake Hodges, in Del Dios.

"I looked at stuff in boxes as we got ready to leave," Cross said, "and thought, 'Well, one life can burn up and we can start a new one.'"

And then there will be next time.