A bond forged by fire: Horse and owner recover after 'hell came to town'

At the San Luis Rey Downs equestrian training centre in Bonsall, Calif., there's little evidence of the inferno. No fire scars on the land, no burn marks — except those etched on the skin of Joe Herrick and his filly, Lovely Finish.

Herrick is taking her on a cool-down walk; their path leads to the spot where his barn once stood, before a wildfire struck nearly two years ago.

"For a while, when she first came back, she didn't even want to come around this area," Herrick says, patting Lovely Finish on the nose. 

The memories of that day, he says, were too painful.

 "It was like hell came to town that day. You're just thinking this can't be happening, this is worse than a nightmare."

Kim Brunhuber/CBC

In December 2017, the Lilac Fire ripped through northern San Diego County, destroying more than 150 structures. Even though Herrick says the fire front was "about a mile wide," he initially thought the 500-stall equestrian centre would be fine — even without a sprinkler system. After all, he says, workers had cut back the vegetation surrounding the centre, and at the first sign of smoke, everyone at the centre began hosing down the barns.

"We got everything sopping wet," Herrick says, "but it didn't matter."

In the end, it was the trees that got them, he says, the hundreds of 24-metre tall palm trees that lined the road circling the equestrian centre which lit up like Roman candles in a huge surge of wind and fire.

"With flaming debris coming in like a hurricane-force wind," Herrick says, "it was like fiery darts shooting into your barn."

Hundreds of horses running wild

Herrick's horses were inside. He says he had no choice but to go in after them. But with hundreds of horses running wild and kicking each other, it was "chaos." After Herrick freed one of his horses, it ran right back into the burning stall to her death.

Herrick got burned, so he hosed himself off then went back in to rescue Lovely Finish, but they got hit by a "fireball" as they were leaving the stall.

"I got burned right in the face," Herrick says. There was no going back in.

Herrick spent 12 days in the burn unit. His head looked like a swollen pumpkin. His ears were "toast."

Herrick lifts his sleeve to reveal his skin. His face, neck, and arms are all covered in pinkish scar tissue. As for Lovely Finish, about half of her body was burned. Her muzzle bears the same pinkish scars as her owner, the grey fur on her flanks, crinkled like crepe paper.

Paul Sisson/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP

"A lot of people didn't think she'd make it through the night," Herrick says. 

In all, almost 50 horses died that day at San Luis Rey Downs — including six Herrick trained or owned — many of them perishing after they ran back into their stalls. There were no sprinklers in any of the barns, and that, Herrick says, made all the difference.

"Fire sprinklers would have slowed it down and bought us some more time," Herrick says.

Sprinkler system now installed

In the wake of that deadly fire, the San Luis Rey Downs equestrian training centre has now has installed sprinklers. A classic case, Herrick says, of "shutting the door after the horse is already loose."

Kim Brunhuber/CBC

Due to its favourable weather, Southern California is one of the largest horse-racing regions in the U.S. And even though massive fires are becoming more common in California — 15 of the 20 largest fires in the state's history have occurred since 2000, and five of the state's 10 most destructive wildfires have come in the past four years — the regulations governing equestrian centres haven't changed. California law still doesn't require sprinklers, despite calls to make them mandatory from animals rights groups like the Humane Society.

The laws are similar in Canada; the National Farm Building Code of Canada doesn't stipulate the need for fire detection or suppression equipment in farm buildings, regardless of whether they house equipment or animals. 

But that may change. The National Research Council Canada (NRC) is updating the codes for 2020. In an email to the CBC, the NRC says it's "reviewing technical provisions specifically designed to address the unique hazards and characteristics of modern, large-scale farm buildings and farming operations." The proposed changes will be put forward for public review in January 2020.

"Tens of thousands of farm animals are killed in horrific barn fires every year," says Riana Topan with Humane Society International/Canada, which has repeatedly called on the federal and provincial governments "to better regulate fire prevention on farms, to prevent some of these needless tragedies."

Fire-retardant blankets

In the absence of federal regulations, one Canadian is taking matters into her own hands.

Vancouver-born Dalia MacPhee is a well-known Hollywood fashion designer based in Los Angeles. Her designs have been worn by celebrities such as Hilary Duff, Scarlett Johansson, and Khloe Kardashian.

Kim Brunhuber/CBC

In 2018, she and her horse Wolfy barely escaped a fire that raged through the Malibu area.

"They always say necessity is the mother of all invention," MacPhee says. "We're living in this age of technology; why is it that we're not doing better for our animals?"

So MacPhee designed a seemingly simple solution: the Equisafe Blanket. The bright orange fire-retardant blanket fastens around the animal, leaving only its head and legs exposed. She says the blanket can withstand temperatures up to 371 degrees C.

To demonstrate, she applies a blowtorch to a sample of the material.

Kim Brunhuber/CBC

"You see it's not catching on fire," MacPhee says. "I'd like that the code be change that all horse blankets should have some level of fire retardancy in them."

The blanket also comes equipped with a GPS so the horse can be found again if it has to be set free under chaotic circumstances like the one in which Herrick found himself.

Back at the training centre, Herrick and Lovely Finish take a slow lap around the track. They pass the spot where the barn used to be, without incident.

"She got over her fear of this spot," Herrick says. "Now she likes it here."

'Not going to let this fire defeat me'

Incredibly, 10 months after the fire, Lovely Finish was back at the tracks, racing.

"I didn't care if she ever ran again," Herrick says. "She showed me pretty quickly that she was still wanting to perform, wanting to get back at it."

Herrick wipes away a tear. He, too, has moved on.

Kim Brunhuber/CBC

"I'm not going to let this fire defeat me or ruin my life."

Herrick says he still has nightmares of his other horses, the ones that ran back into the barn and never came out.

"There's nights where you don't want to go to sleep," he says. "The nightmares were just waiting for you. But having her helps, doesn't it hun? he says to Lovely Finish. "We have that deep bond and love for each other. "

As if to prove the point, Lovely Finish grabs Herrick's hat off his head and begins to eat it.

Through the pain and the nightmares, he says, she makes "the unbearable bearable."

Kim Brunhuber reports on the aftermath of the Lilac Fire for The National: