Skip to main content









Donation Heart Ribbon

Several Horses Killed, Hundreds Let Loose Amid Fast-Moving Lilac Fire

A horse looks out of a stable at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, Dec. 7, 2017,

Photo by Steve Walsh

Above: A horse looks out of a stable at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, Dec. 7, 2017,

An estimated 10 to 20 horses at a Bonsall training facility died in the fast-moving Lilac Fire, according to trainers at the property.

Cliff Sise said the animals were killed after a barn at the San Luis Rey Downs Training Center suddenly caught fire and staff opened the stables so the facility's 495 horses could flee.

“You just had to turn them loose," Sise told KPBS in a phone interview from the training center.

He said flames moved faster than the horses could be evacuated.

“Palm trees catch embers real easy, and then they start on fire, and with palm trees, embers are like, it’s like fireworks," Sise said. "It’s just very easy."

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Michelle Dollase

Flames from the Lilac fire in San Diego's North County destroy a structure where hundreds of horses were kept at the San Luis Rey Downs Training Facility, Dec. 7, 2017.

According to Bing Bush, whose Del Mar race-winning horse Unobtainable was at the facility, a live video streamed on Facebook shows horses at the training center furiously galloping amid smoke and haze on the property. Flames can be seen in the background as the Facebook user unhooks stable barriers to release the animals.

Sise, who estimates 10 horses were killed including one of his own, said staff and volunteers were able to wrangle many of the horses and bring them to the Del Mar Fairgrounds or other safe locations. He said more than 100 to 125 horses were still loose on the grounds as of 6 p.m.

Trainer Richard Baltas said many vehicles with small trailers were able to access the area in the early afternoon to evacuate some of the animals.

"There was just a bunch of people donating their time...and their vans, a lot of their smaller vans with their truck and trailer," he said via phone.

However, he said as conditions worsened, larger trailers that could carry dozens of animals were unable to reach the entrance. The California Highway Patrol's Traffic Information Incident webpage shows at 3:23 p.m. the fire "jumped the road, Camino Del Ray," at a point that appears to be near the training facility.

"There is zero visibility here," the update said.

Baltas, who said most of his roughly 30 horses were accounted for, said he had heard that up to 20 animals were killed, but he did not know of an official tally.

Facebook Live Video From San Luis Rey Downs Training Center

A live video that was shared publicly on Facebook by user Leo Tapia shows horses fleeing a fire in San Diego's North County, Dec. 7, 2017.

An estimated 10 to 20 horses at a Bonsall training facility died.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.