10/23/2007 12:00AM

Track, farms housing fire refugees

EmailThe horse industry was pulling together to help evacuate animals and people Tuesday in Southern California as wildfires continued to threaten farms and stables in the area.

The Los Angeles Times reported 22 fires burning as of Tuesday afternoon, with some of the worst blazes occurring in San Diego County, where county officials said 513,000 citizens were under mandatory evacuation orders. Another 12,000 had been asked to evacuate voluntarily.

Two people had been reported killed in the blazes, which ranged from north of Los Angeles south to the Mexico border and were pushed along rapidly by Santa Ana winds.

By Tuesday, Del Mar's fairgrounds, horse park, and racetrack area had taken in an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 people and about 2,500 horses and other animals, including a pair of zebras, according to the San Diego Tribune. The California National Guard had deployed troops there to offer assistance, and the park was calling for volunteers with equine experience to help with horse care. Interested parties were asked to call (858) 792-5245 before arriving.

Farms in relatively safe areas also were serving as evacuation centers and taking horses and people in.

One fire got within three miles of Vessels Stallion Farm in Bonsall, said owner Scoop Vessels, before it turned in a different direction. Vessels estimated that the blaze nearest the farm - a new fire that started Tuesday morning - was still 10 to 12 miles away.

"We're hanging in there," Vessels said. "We've got a lot of smoke and ash. We've taken in about 275 to 300 head here. We've got people spending the night, sleeping and cooking. It's been crazy. Everything is on fire down here."

Vessels estimated that there were about 100 people camping out on the 450-acre farm. The farm's resident horses - numbering about 400 mares, foals, racehorses, and stallions - were faring well, though Vessels said he was concerned that the poor air quality might be hard on some of the older stock.

"We left our irrigation on all night long," he said. "Fortunately, we've got a lot of open area and plowed-up area between us and the river, so we feel relatively safe. We've got a lot of pasture."

Well north in Malibu, Brian Boudreau's Malibu Valley Farm was serving as an evacuation site for between 40 and 50 horses in addition to his own herd of about 60.

"We're surrounded," Boudreau said. "We can see fire on the ridges on two sides."

Boudreau said that despite its proximity to the blazes, Malibu Valley was enjoying good air quality.

"It's very strange," he said. "We're in this gap where it's not bad, but it's horrible everywhere else. In Malibu, less than three miles away, you can't see two feet. It's like the worst fog you've ever been in."

Boudreau said he and his farm staff have turned the horses out into irrigated fields.

"We burned to the ground in 1996," he said, "so we've been through this before, and we're pretty prepared."