One year ago this month, the Lilac Fire tore through San Diego County in Southern California. Homes were destroyed and more than 4,000 acres were scorched.
Thousands of people were evacuated, and thankfully, none of them died. But the fire impacted the heart of horse country: Nearly 50 horses died at the San Luis Rey Training Center in Bonsall, California, and trainers and owners racing stall to stall to free them from burning buildings were themselves burned.
Joe Herrick was one of them. He was severely burned while trying to save a favorite filly, named Lovely Finish.
"There's stalls on each side of the barn, and there were only four bedded stalls on the other side of the barn. We had wet those down for over an hour — soaked them — and they still ignited with all the heat and flaming debris that came in," Herrick recalls. "And when those stalls ignited, it got my side going. I did manage to get another horse out before I got Lovely Finish out, and that horse ... ran back into the security of the barn, and perished. Her name was Sarah Sunshine."
Both Herrick and Lovely Finish suffered severe burns. The horse was sent to an animal clinic for care. Herrick went to the hospital, but he didn't need skin grafts and left after just 12 days, saying he couldn't stay because thoughts of Lovely Finish made it hard for him to sleep.
Herrick says he's still coping with what the fire did to him.
"The skin on top of my wrists feels like cardboard, and it's stiff and there's some loss of sensation here and there," he says. "But I went back to playing soccer five weeks after I got done because I just needed to exhaust my body so I wouldn't have the nightmares."
After they were reunited, Herrick says he and the horse gradually helped each other heal — starting with slow walks outside, which became jogs and then, eventually, a return to the track. In September, Lovely Finish raced again.
"Right after the fire, I was like, 'I don't care if she never runs again,' " Herrick says. "But she's super smart. She's figuring this racing thing out."
On dealing with the possibility of a wildfire prior to the Lilac Fire
"We'd had a lot of close calls before, but the fire always seemed to go around us. It hit my barn and Martine Bellocq's barn, also got hit first. She was trying to get her horse out of the stall and her horse would not leave the stall, so she got burned ... much, much worse than I did. She lost her leg below her knee and she still ... marches on. She's amazing."
On Lovely Finish needing to be able to move in order to recover
"She was racing fit, so a couple more days in the clinic, I brought her home to my place and I was able to hand walk her two or three times a day. That turned into hand jogging, because she needed to do more. So it helped me get back fit, and her back fit, because she was racing fit.
"She couldn't be out during a daytime because her skin was so sensitive. But at night, she could be out in like a 12-by-24 area. The back of her stall, we'd open it up and she'd go out into her area so she could be out all night. So that was good."
"It stays with you. You rely on your faith and your friends, your family."Joe Herrick, on coping with memories of the fire
On ways the evacuation could have been more effective, and safety measures at the rebuilt San Luis Rey Training Center
"The problem was, they wouldn't let horse trailers in to get us out of there. The only option was turning these horses loose, and really, Cal Fire was telling us, 'Shelter in place, shelter in place,' and then at 1 o'clock it was like, 'OK, evacuate.' Well an hour later, it hits the fan."
"We've been stabled at Del Mar over a month now so they could install the fire sprinkler system [at San Luis Rey]. So now we're going back to barns that are a little bit safer and more protected."
On Lovely Finish's return to racing
"She's run really well. She ran two-thirds, and she ran second the other day against much tougher horses. My phone rang off the hook for weeks, people wanting to buy her, so I turned down over $250,000 because I was so attached to her and it wouldn't have been fair to her. The grooms were calling her my girlfriend. So if I was hard up for money, I probably would have had to."
On people who say a horse like Lovely Finish deserves a life of rest after what she's gone through, instead of going back to racing
"I would say that she loves racing. She loves the attention that she gets every day. These horses are cared for more than they're ever going to be for the rest of their life."
This segment aired on December 18, 2018.