Those who lived through the Lilac Fire at the San Luis Rey horse training facility are still haunted by the scenes they witnessed more than four months ago.
As stable owners raced to save valuable thoroughbreds, more than 40 horses died. But now, more than 400 horses and their trainers are recovering.
Located in Bonsall, the San Luis Rey Training Center is no stranger to dangerous wildfires. When staff saw the Lilac Fire approaching the property last December, they started taking precautions.
"We have five water trucks," said San Luis Rey Training Center general manager Kevin Habell. "Three can fight fires. Plus with Cal Fire and the fire department."
Habell said in the past wildfires have gotten close, but always missed the horse training facility. This time, though, flames spread onto the property.
"It was crazy, it was like it’s not happening," Habell said. "I kept telling myself, 'This can’t be happening.' "
When the fire spread to stables, it hit Joe Herrick's barn first.
"It was like hell came to town," Herrick said. He has been a horse trainer since 1995. "You saw things that you don’t want to see ever again."
Herrick said within minutes his stables were engulfed.
"I got one horse out and got the lead pony out," he said. "I’m getting another horse out, and this fireball hit us as we were going out of the stall. I heard my hair go ‘sheek,’ just burn, and I felt all this pain hit me when I got burned."
Herrick had eight horses he was trying to rescue, including a filly named Lovely Finish.
"Right after I got lit up I was like, 'Am I still on fire?' And she took off, and I looked, and I was smoldering and smoking. So I grabbed the hose, hosed myself off and tried to get back in."
After running through fire, Herrick suffered serious burns on his face, arms and back.
"I ran right by the fireman who said, 'Hey stop him, there’s a burn victim we gotta stop him.' And I’m like, 'I’m running after my horses, you have no shot at stopping me.' "
'A Recipe For Disaster'
Six of Herrick’s horses died in the fire. His barn was right next to Pierre Bellocq’s, who could see the fire spreading.
"Fronds were shooting out of the palm trees like missiles everywhere into the barn." Bellocq said. "And I knew that was a recipe for disaster."
Bellocq and his wife, Martine, had six horses when their stable went up in flames.
"Everything was just burned to the ground within minutes," Bellocq said. "It was a bad scene. A very bad scene."
Bellocq’s wife was badly injured during the fire, receiving burns on over 60 percent of her body.
"I found her sitting on the dirt there in really bad shape," he said. "The only thing she could say was 'Billy,' which was the name of a horse we were trying to save."
Billy and another one of the Bellocq’s horses did not survive.
"It was a horrifying scene," Bellocq said. "He was burnt to a crisp and his legs were half-burnt. Burnt out all four legs, it was the most horrifying thing I’ve ever seen"
Once flames reached the stables, staff at San Luis Rey said there was only one option.
"Last thing you want to do as a horseman is let the horse out of the barn," Habell said. "Especially an expensive horse. You’re like, 'I can’t let this thing out, it’s going to get hurt.' The alternative was, the barn's on fire."
After the smoke cleared at San Luis Rey, seven buildings had been completely destroyed — 46 horses died and more than 400 were taken to the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.
For the last few months, people have been working together to rebuild San Luis Rey.
"We put our heads together, and you saw the structures, which we call pavilion one, pavilion two," Habell said. "That’s 248 stalls. That was the fastest recovery that we could get barns put up."
Before the fire, there were more than 500 palm trees on the property.
"They’re like roman candles, they spark," Habell said. "We cut all those down."
Other safety precautions include storing dry grass and other flammables in fireproof containers. Still, the memory of what happened here haunts some.
"It is cause for nightmares once in a while," Bellocq said. "But you have to keep going."
"It started raining here today, and the horses started kicking the walls," Herrick said. "You have those moments where it brings back these horrible, horrific memories. You get little reminders like that, but for the most part, you have got to press on."
Now, San Luis Rey is open, and most horses are back to racing. Herrick’s filly, Lovely Finish, is still recovering after being burned on her face during the fire.
"It used to be all pink and burnt (referring to the horse's face). Her hair’s grown back and her pigment’s grown back, it’s just taken some time."
Herrick said he plans to debut Lovely Finish this summer at Del Mar.
"She was like, 'You better get me back to training before I kick your head off.' "