When the CZU Lightning Complex fires exploded along the ridges and into the canyons of the rugged Santa Cruz Mountains on Aug. 18, members of the equestrian community in and around Woodside acted quickly.
Within hours, trailers were hitched up and heading into areas affected by the fires. Often working in the dark and through thick smoke, many volunteers made multiple trips to bring horses and other livestock to safety at equestrian facilities and small private barns.
Others stepped forward with donations to provide feed and supplies for sheltered animals. Volunteers pitched in to keep track of the animals, feed and clean up after them. The community's ad hoc efforts complimented the work of the San Mateo Large Animal Evacuation Group, a volunteer organization activated by Cal Fire during emergencies that rescued nearly 1,500 animals from areas impacted by the CZU wildfires as of Aug. 24.
Kiely Field in Woodside is home to the Woodside Junior Riders and the Woodside chapter of Pony Club International. Normally bustling with kids and horses throughout the year, it has been empty due to the coronavirus pandemic. Kathi Dancer, program director for Woodside Junior Riders, described how rapidly that scene changed as people frantically sought to move their animals to safety. "People started calling Tuesday night (Aug. 18) and then it just snowballed. While my phone was blowing up, those Pony Club girls swung into action."
In a matter of hours, senior Pony Club members Hannah Bailey, Vero Metheny and Taran Vixie had converted Kiely Field into an evacuation center and began receiving horses from the fire-stricken areas. Steve Wiberg, a longtime farrier with clients in the area, donated the first load of hay for the horses arriving at Kiely Field. In all, 31 animals were taken in.
"People have been extremely generous," said Bailey. "Whenever we've put the word out for something, the response has been amazing."
Denise Enea, former fire marshal of the Woodside Fire Protection District, played a key role in connecting horse facilities with space to evacuees in need of shelter. She also coordinated feed deliveries to all the locations. "I started to receive calls on day one of the fire, some as far as Morgan Hill. I picked up the phone and called horse facilities in our area and all said yes, of course -- bring the horses," said Enea.
The Mounted Patrol was another key evacuation site for horses, along with a pair of miniature Zebu Brahma cattle.
Emaan Amid-Hozour and Genevieve Crivello had two horses and a pony evacuated from the Skylonda area to the Mounted Patrol Grounds in Woodside by two members of the Mounted Patrol. On a recent visit to the Patrol Grounds, the couple watched their horses Charlie and Carson and pony, Emma, peacefully munching on hay. "This place was a lifesaver. I don't know what we would have done," said Crivello.
The Horse Park at Woodside also opened up to evacuees, taking in 30 horses, several donkeys and mares with young foals. Executive Director Steve Roon worked closely with Robin Camozzi of the San Mateo Large Animal Evacuation Group.
"It was so gratifying to be able to do this. We are also lucky to have so many experienced horse people here," said Roon.
In addition to being an evacuation site, he said the management has been developing a plan for the evacuation of the Horse Park itself.
As the number of animals being brought in grew by the hour, so did the cost of caring for them. The Woodside Community Foundation responded quickly by funding a grant proposed by Scott and Kathi Dancer to provide feed and immediately started a Local Disaster Relief Fund focused on large animals.
According to Rick DeBenedetti, WCF's treasurer, donations during normal times tend to be on the small side and come in slowly, but all that changes when people react to an urgent need. "Then it's amazing how generous people are! The fund doubled in four days. It was crazy," DeBenedetti said.
WHOA! (Woodside-Area Horse Owner's Association) made a donation of $10,000 to the fund.
With so many members of the community mobilized to help in a crisis, new relationships were forged. "I've made a lot of new friends through all of this," said Kathi Dancer.
As firefighters gain control of the nearby CZU Lightning Complex fires, which are burning in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties and were just under 50% containment as of Wednesday, thoughts are starting to turn to the next one, which could be even closer to home. "If this fire doesn't promote proactive change within all the WUI (wildland urban interface) communities of San Mateo County, I'm afraid nothing will except, unfortunately, a similar fire here on the east side of Highway 35," said Enea, referring to areas where buildings and development are intermingled with undeveloped land.
If that fire ever happens, many horses and large animals in Woodside and Portola Valley would need to be evacuated. Enea says more people on the east side of Highway 35 should become members of the San Mateo Large Animal Evacuation Group.
"There won't be anyone who knows how to do it better than (the group) after the CZU August Lightning Complex fires incident. They had an extremely difficult job and the volunteers are truly amazing," she said.