The Equine Evacuees of the Woolsey Fire

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The Humane Society of Ventura County cares for a miniature horse on Zuma Beach during the Woolsey Fire.

At the peak of the Woolsey Fire, 200 horses were evacuated to the Pierce College equestrian center, another 313 horse evacuees went to the Hansen Dam Equestrian Center in Sylmar and the Ventura County Fairgrounds sheltered 180 horses, ponies and other large animals. And, it’s no small feat to rescue a horse—at a bare minimum, it requires a horse trailer and a horse that’s been trained to get on the trailer. 

Horses in trailers were a common sight on the Pacific Coast Highway evacuation route back on Nov. 9, with many owners heading out of town. 

LA County Animal Care & Control plays a big part in animal evacuations during wildfires, as does Southern California Equine Emergency Evacuation, a 13,000 member community of horse lovers who have space to shelter the animals or trailers to pick them up.

As the Woolsey Fire approached Malibu in record time—only taking five-and-a-half hours from the time it jumped the Ventura (101) Freeway until the time it reached the city limits of Malibu, local horse owners scrambled to get their animals to safety. 

The Humane Society of Ventura County (HSVC) began helping early on. Greg Cooper, director of community outreach, said the nonprofit initiated 24/7 emergency services “within an hour of the first fire,” with teams heading out to rescue horses and other livestock in the Malibu area. That included picking up horses and other large animals from Zuma Beach, where many owners had taken them.

Local horse owner Cheryl Jordan was home alone on Horizon Drive and called 9-1-1 as the fire grew closer and the smoke thickened. In the panic of trying to evacuate, she broke her arm and couldn’t rescue her two horses and two dogs, according to her online fundraiser page. The dogs died in the fire. When a Humane Society group arrived the day after the fire had decimated the property and the house, they discovered her two horses, Flash and Pepe, still locked in their pens. 

HSVC took them to Zuma Beach, then to an equine hospital to treat their injuries, burns and smoke inhalation. The horses’ owners signed them over to HSVC for continued care and the pair was later adopted by A Little Rescue—a nonprofit in Thousand Oaks. 

Meanwhile, Donovan, a stubborn horse residing at Spunky’s Rescue Ranch in Decker Canyon, refused to be rescued. While co-owner Wendell Phillips and three other horses evacuated, Donovan stayed behind because no one could catch him. 

The ranch house and much of the ranch burned, according to NBC/4. Phillips brought food and water for the horse every day, but determined the only way to transport Donovan off the blackened property would be to use a well-placed tranquilizer dart. 

“He’s got a couple little burns on his nose and his tail’s a whole lot shorter than it used to be,” Phillips told NBC. Since the vegetation on Donovan’s favorite spot on the ranch had been eaten down to the nubs, he had a safe space that didn’t burn. 

Horse rescuer Dana Serratore said, “Donovan is very afraid of people and generally scared of this whole situation. He can take off in a heartbeat to the wide-open burnt hills behind their property.” 

A sheriff’s deputy patrolling the neighborhood noticed Donovan and told Phillips her friend wants to adopt him. “There’s going to be a happy ending” for Donovan, Phillips told the reporter.

Serratore risked her own life to save animals from the fire in and around Malibu. Because of her credentials, she’s allowed access to evacuated areas and was able to rescue 32 animals—mostly horses.

“We were in tears. We saw animals on fire and dead animals. We saw really devastating things, but it’s worth it when we pull out these other animals,” she told a reporter.

On a Facebook fundraiser page, it was reported that Serratore drove over 1,100 miles in six days getting Malibu area horses to safety—and didn’t charge horse owners for the service. 

“In addition to paying for gas, hay and other supplies, and losing a week of pay, the Malibu hills have put a strain on her vehicle, and Dana will immediately need new tires and brakes,” the fundraiser page said. More than $8,000 was donated.

Talley Hutcherson, owner and operator of Malibu’s Connemara Ranch on Cavalleri Road, evacuated at least 10 horses. The LA Times reported that she initially brought them to Zuma Beach. The horses were then evacuated to the Ventura Fairgrounds, where they were provided with donated feed and other supplies, according to Instagram and other accounts. 

Another heroic horse rescuer, Jess Phoenix, was honored by ABC7 and the LA Chargers on Nov. 27 after driving her truck and horse trailer directly into the Malibu fire zone four times—saving one abandoned horse each time.