'It Restores Your Faith in Humanity': How Equestrians Showed Up for California Wildfire Evacuees (And How You Can Help, Too)

'It Restores Your Faith in Humanity': How Equestrians Showed Up for California Wildfire Evacuees (And How You Can Help, Too)

As the wildfires rage on in California during one of the worst years on record for California wildfire damage, hundreds of thousands of acres of decimated land have meant mass evacuations for humans and animals including horses.

The Camp Fire (Butte County), Woolsey Fire (Los Angeles and Ventura Counties), and Hill Fire (Ventura County) are still burning and an active threat, having claimed more than 50 lives statewide to date.

Many of the people and horses who have evacuated safely have done so with the assistance of their community, often strangers, who showed up to help however possible.

Mackenzie Rollins and her team were faced with evacuating about 70 horses from the Mill Creek Equestrian Center in Topanga, Calif. in Los Angeles County. They had lost power and didn't have cell phone service in the canyon where the farm is located, so they were driving up to higher ground to get a visual on the fire and smoke and check their cell phones. They were also relying on friends calling the farm's landline, which remained in operation despite the loss of power, to check in and provide updates.

Everyone pitches in to move the 70 horses. Photo courtesy of McKenzie Rollins.

"It's so hard to tell on the news where the fire is because it just seems like it's everywhere," Mackenzie says. "With the reports we were getting, it was changing so much so we thought we'd have to get out quickly."

This wasn't their first evacuation experience. They had evacuated a few years ago and were able to be efficient as possible. All the horses had halters on, their water buckets were collected from stalls and labeled with each horse's feed and hay requirements, and people went ahead to the evacuation site at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Burbank about 25 miles away to get organized and ready to accept horses.

Mill Creek received their evacuation order at 2:30 p.m. on Friday and were trailering horses within the hour. Dozens of trailers showed up to help move horses, so many that Mackenzie doesn't think any of the rigs made repeat trips. "People were calling the local saddlery asking who needed help," Mackenzie says. "They would line the road in front of the barn, we would throw the horses in, and off they would go. As crazy and hectic as it was, it was a conveyer belt of trailers."

They settled into a rhythm at the evacuation site and regular staff along with helpful clients and friends work in shifts to feed, water, muck out, and even exercise the horses. The Mill Creek family have learned that they will be able to return to the farm in Topanga, which survived the fire, but they do not yet know when that will happen.

Smoke billows in the distance. Photo courtesy McKenzie Rollins.

"In terms of what this fire has done to our community, we are so lucky because we have somewhere to go home to. There were people driving through fire with horses and stranded on the beach because the roads are closed," Mackenzie says.

One nightmarish video circulating on social media showed just that: a rider who was leaving her barn, driving through the flames in Malibu.

As we know, not everyone was so lucky. Jane Arrasmith Duggan, of Lynn and Glenn Cardoso's Ironhorse Ranch in Malibu, was in Kentucky at the USDF Finals with two horses when the fire broke out. She followed the news closely and organized an evacuation from afar.

"I've lived in Malibu my whole life and I know how these things can roll," Jane says. "We were awake all night and got all our haulers together. We had two haulers go up to the farm and get into position. Once the fire jumped the 101 freeway I told them to just load up and get out. We got them over to the Paddock Riding Club [in Los Angeles] and they took us in and we're trying to figure out what to do next."

When we spoke with Jane on the phone, the familiar clip-clop of horse hooves could be heard. She was back in California, and she was riding, affording some semblance of normalcy in an otherwise chaotic time. With the fires yet to be fully contained, relief efforts are in full swing.

"I cannot tell you the outpouring. I am in tears on a daily basis not because of what we lost but what people are doing for us," Jane said. "People have come out with personal donations and dropped them off. I have friends driving from Washington and North Carolina with stuff for us. We have gift cards arriving. I have a client who has set up a storage unit and is having donations brought to her. It restores your faith in humanity."

In times like these, it's hard to know where to send money and/or donations, but every donation, however small, makes a big difference. Here are some of the ways you can help.

1. Send Money to Relief Efforts

According to the Center for International Disaster Information, monetary donation to 'established relief agencies' is always the most effective and efficient way to help after a natural disaster. You can use CharityNavigator.com to do your research before you donate to ensure that your donation is being sent to a reputable and official organization.

You can go direct to the source and donate to the Los Angeles Fire Department Foundation, which provides private funding for equipment and supplies needed for the firefighters on the front lines. The Humane Society of Ventura County (which is currently housing and caring for displaced horses) is collecting donations, as is the U.S. Equestrian Disaster Relief Fund which was founded specifically to aid in the care of horses after natural disasters like the California wildfires.

2. Material Donations Are a Big Help for Displaced Horse Owners

Maybe you know of someone personally who had to evacuate and doesn't have everything they need to take care of their horses. Don't be shy about reaching out to a social media acquaintance (or a total stranger) to see how you can help and what they might need.

"It's all so fresh, people haven't really figured out where to start and what is and is not a priority. People need clean underwear and a toothbrush," Mackenzie says. "Buckets, pitchforks, basic things that make your barn function. Find someone to reach out to. I'm from the East Coast and there are a lot of people asking me how to help."

Kaval is helping to organize the collection of halters, tack, and other horse supplies for farms burned down by the fires:

Whitney Harrington, of Agoura Hills, Calif., has been collecting items and gift cards and has turned a storage unit into a distribution center. She's taking requests and arranging deliveries of much needed items to the equestrian community.

3. Volunteer

If you're local, the Humane Society of Ventura County is asking for volunteers over 18 years of age with 2+ years of horse experience. There's no better time to reach out and see how you can get involved,

Feature photo: Matthew Simmons, Getty Images