Among the evacuees from the North Bay fires were many just visiting in the Wine Country, including the dozen horses in the Grande Liberte equine performing troupe with their trainer and owner, Sylvia Zerbini, and her family.
The Grande Liberte troupe members were scheduled to perform at a sold-out Oct. 14 fundraiser for the nonprofit Belos Cavalos, an equine therapy program in Kenwood that helps traumatized girls and young women.
Ms. Zerbini, her husband Richie Waite, and the horses had left their home -- 80 miles north of Tampa, Florida -- with their 53-foot, air-conditioned 14-horse semi-trailer a few days ahead of schedule because of the hurricane headed their way.
On Sunday night, Oct. 8, after giving a training clinic in Half Moon Bay, they had returned to Belos Cavalos and gone to bed early.
Pounding on the door
Soon after, at 11:15 p.m., they woke to pounding on the door.
It was Charlyn Belluzzo, the founder of Belos Cavalos. "She said we have to go, we have to evacuate," Mr. Waite said. He understood when he went outside. He saw flames less than a half mile away, coming over the ridge pushed by 70 miles an hour winds.
He, his wife, their daughter and her finance, plus the family's two dogs and a cat, loaded into their vehicle and drove to the portable show stalls, where their dozen horses, all stallions or geldings, were staying.
"I heard my wife and my daughter screaming," Mr. Waite said, after they found the stalls in tatters, and most of the horses scattered. "All the roof was blown off. All the door panels were horizonal from the winds," he said.
Fortunately, Ms. Zerbini specializes in "liberty training," developing a relationship of mutual trust and respect between horse and handler. The horses respond to voice and visual commands. "My wife, just through voice, was able to call a lot of the boys," he said.
They moved the horses into a nearby covered arena and began to load them into their trailer as the fire raced closer. With no power, in the dark, it was hard to tell how many horses they had managed to capture, but as they loaded them in, they realized one was missing.
One horse missing
"We couldn't understand where the other horse was," Mr. Waite said. The missing horse was one of a performing trio called the "Three Amigos," and his two teammates kept trying to lead Ms. Zerbini to a corner of the arena near the fallen stalls.
There they found the missing horse pinned under the fallen structure. "They were telling her" where he was, Mr. Waite said.
They extricated the horse, which had lacerations between its legs, and loaded it in the trailer.
With the fire only about 1,000 feet away, the loaded trailer pulled away from the property.
The next decision was where to go, with multiple fires burning. They headed west on Highway 12, but just past the St. Francis Winery the road was blocked by a downed power pole and wires they couldn't get the massive horse trailer past.
The winery owner came to the rescue, and had them follow his vehicle through the winding residential streets of the nearby Oakmont senior community.
Once they had reached a point of temporary safety, but with fires visible in the distance, Mr. Waite called Larry Gimple, the executive director of the nonprofit Horse Park at Woodside, where they had performed about a year earlier.
It was 2:30 a.m., but Mr. Gimple welcomed them. "Just come on over. I'll have everything ready," Mr. Waite remembers him saying.
Mr. Gimple said the call stunned him momentarily. "I had no idea fires had even started, so it was kind of a shock there was a fire big enough for him to evacuate," he said. But soon he jumped into action, using a tractor to clear manure that had been left from an event the day before.
He woke up two crew members, turned on lights, and set up food, water and stalls for the Grande Liberte horses.
The group arrived at 5:30 a.m., just as preparations were completed. Mr. Gimple took the four family members, their dogs and cat, into his home on the property while he stayed with friends.
Tired, dirty and in shock
Mr. Gimple said the horses, and their humans, seemed to be in shock. "It sounded horrific, I don't know how they got through it," he said of their near escape.
But during the week the troupe stayed, until they had to leave for an event in Scottsdale, Arizona, the humans and the equines appeared to recover, he said.
Mr. Gimple said that he and the Horse Park "were very grateful that we were able to take care of" the Grande Liberte troupe. "They're a unique group and very, very good people. They take very good care of their horses."
An evacuation center
Mr. Gimple said the Horse Park is uniquely set up to help with an evacuation. While about 120 horses are boarded there year-round, about 400 more can be housed in temporary stalls they use for events.
"We consider ourselves an evacuation center," he said.
He said the facility offered to board, at no cost, any other evacuated horses, and had inquiries from owners looking to evacuate as many as 100 horses. In the end, the owners of only three other horses took them up on the offer, perhaps because of Woodside's distance from the fires, he said.
Mr. Gimple said the Horse Park has planned for a local disaster. Area horse owners and Woodside officials have been told the Horse Park will serve as an evacuation site, he said. In case the Horse Park must be evacuated, he allows two horse hauling companies to keep their large trailer trucks on the property. In turn, the Horse Park has first dibs on their services in an evacuation.
Mr. Gimple urged all local animal owners to have a disaster plan and be ready to put it into place if there's any chance an evacuation might be needed.
"Have a plan and execute it sooner than later," he said.
Return to Belos Cavalos
Despite the drama surrounding their visit, the Grande Liberte troupe plans to return to Belos Cavalos, which ended up being unscathed by the fire. They'll do the postponed fundraiser next May, Mr. Waite said.
Even the horse injured in the collapse of the show stall was back performing again 10 days after the fire, Mr. Waite said.