Lilac Fire Provides Employee Chance To Help Humans And Horses

  • By Diana Fredlund, Public Affairs Officer, Stanislaus National Forest
Racehorses peek through their stable doors during the Lilac Fire that came close to the fairgrounds. The burned remains of a home after the Lilac Fire with a mountain range in the background. The remains of a home burned during the Lilac Fire.

When a wildfire ignites, a call to action is sounded and firefighting personnel converge to manage the incident. However, supporting a fire incident doesn’t always mean working on the fire line. There are many tasks that need to be done during a large fire event. For example, logistics, administration, dealing with the media and informing and assisting residents who have been impacted by a disaster are only a few examples of the support teams needed to properly handle the scale and scope of something as impactful as a wildfire. 

When the Lilac Fire broke out in San Diego County, Kimberly Peterson, a biological science technician on the Stanislaus National Forest, answered the call for support as a public information officer trainee. Part of her duties were helping evacuated animals held at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. The Lilac Fire was a product of the strong Santa Ana winds so common in southern California. The blaze went on to burn 4,100 acres and destroy 157 buildings in December 2017, forcing many to either leave or move their animals to a safer location. 

Peterson was helping families retrieve their animals after the evacuation orders were lifted and residents were allowed to return to their homes or businesses.

A woman stand next to a racehorse she cared for during the Lilac Fire.

Kimberly Peterson, a biological science technician on the Stanislaus National Forest, greets one of the racehorses she cared for during the Lilac Fire in San Diego, December 2017. (Photo courtesy of Kimberly Peterson)

“This was an amazing assignment,” said Peterson. “I got to help folks load their animals, who had survived the fire, into their trailers to go home.”

Peterson, an avid horsewoman, was thrilled that her duties included helping out some of the 400 racehorses that had been evacuated from their stables at the San Luis Rey Downs Training Center when the fire swept through. She helped the horses settle in and tried to calm them, aided by a 20-pound bag of carrots given to her by the thoroughbreds’ trainers who told her to go make friends. 

Lucas Spelman, a member of CAL FIRE and Peterson’s public information officer within the incident command, knew her skills working with large animals.

“I try whenever possible to match members of my team with their skill sets. She was tasked [to manage] the Red Cross shelters and large animal rescues,” said Spelman. “Kimberly was able to inform and console victims that had been displaced and even those who had lost their homes or their animals.”

Working with her Lilac Fire team was very satisfying, Peterson said.

“I am so grateful to have the opportunity to work with the CAL FIRE Incident Management Team 1 again. I have learned so much from both Lucas Spelman and Richard Cordova on how to be a better [public information officer]. We come together from a variety of fire agencies with one purpose: to serve the public during an incredibly difficult time,” said Peterson. “There have been times when I did not feel as much a part of the team, but Richard and Lucas really make you feel like you are not just part of the team, but family.”

Providing support in a myriad of ways

Peterson comforted more than horses and other animals temporarily housed at the fairgrounds.

“Often the public information officers are the only ones these folks get to talk to. I was comforting some residents who lost their homes or their animals,” Peterson said. “It was important that they knew someone cared and was there who understood what they were going through and just offer a shoulder to lean on, or an ear to listen to them, even if it was just for a few minutes.”

She was stunned by the response from residents, who brought tons of supplies and equipment.

“The response from the community was amazing. Members of the public brought truckloads of feed, bedding, tools and equipment in huge quantities,” said Peterson. “They were there to help clean out stalls or corrals – anything that needed doing, they were always right there to help out in any way they could.”

Peterson’s public affairs tasks were more than working at the evacuation centers.

“I was there to give out hugs, food and water—and to just listen to them. I would ask them if they needed anything and gave them information about [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] and other resources to help them through their loss. I also delivered Red Cross kits, which included a washcloth, soap, toothpaste and toothbrush, in case they needed it to clean up.”

“I went to one of the hardest hit areas of the Lilac Fire to assist residents as they learned for the first time whether they still had a home or not. I would supply them with gloves, a face mask and a screen to help sift through the ash,” said Peterson.

After several days on evacuation duty, the Lilac Fire was finally being contained and Peterson was called on to assist with the growing threat of the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties as an equipment manager trainee.

All sorts of jobs and tasks need to be done during a major fire incident and Peterson is like most U.S. Forest Service employees who step up to help support the massive effort. They see a need and know people need help during and after such a destructive event. Every fire support assignment is different and employees support the fire effort in a myriad of ways, some standing on the front line face-to-face with the flames or offering a shoulder to lean on or even providing care to frightened animals. All are equally important and are critical to those affected who look for solace and a way forward after the deadly impact of a fire.