Trial By Fire

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Jake and Kathy DeVan were not concerned about California’s monster Simi Valley fire reaching their 1,800-acre W-D Sence Ranch in Somis, California. As they watched the fire’s progress from the top of the hill behind the ranch last October, the threat appeared to be days away. The farm had given refuge to 30 horses and 35 head of cattle that had been driven from their barns by the fire; these joined the 150 horses already on the ranch.

The W-D ranch was considered a relatively safe haven. The area around the barns had been swept clear of brush and other burnables. The local fire department had inspected the farm’s fire-prevention steps the previous July, and declared that the preparations would keep any trouble away from the facility. In case of fire, the firemen told the DeVans, “The best thing was to leave the horses where they were, because it was all cleared off,” Kathy said.

At 1:00 a.m. on October 26, after making the last of their hourly checks on the fire from the hilltop, the DeVans retired for the night. There was no sign of danger, imminent or otherwise.

At 3:00 a.m. a Sheriff’s Deputy called to warn them that the wind had changed direction and the fire was heading toward them—fast.

The Firestorm Erupts

There was no time to evacuate, and little chance for assistance. Help from the fire department was impossible, since their resources had long ago been called away. The DeVans, their ranch hands and a few nearby boarders quickly gathered as many animals as they could onto the 20-acre, brush-free sandy area around the barns, roping arena and house. (Amazingly, the animals remained calm throughout the ordeal.) The volunteers hosed down the main house and other buildings. One boarder was able to save the tack building while another watered down one of the hired men’s homes.

By 4:00 a.m. the fire was sweeping past the house. In half an hour the fire had passed through. The hay barn and manure piles burned, but the other buildings were spared. The farm buildings and its animals were largely unscathed.

Searching for Stragglers

There were, however, some animals unaccounted for. During the race to round up the horses and cattle, not all had been found.

At daylight Kathy DeVan jumped on the four-wheeler and went searching for six missing horses. Darrel and Jeralyn Koupal, the horses’ owners, arrived and began searching the areas where they expected the animals would hide in the100-acre pasture. Around 6:30 a.m. they found them, standing together. The horses’ faces were swollen and the skin crinkled; the depth and severity of the burns was impossible to determine.

At 8 a.m. the DeVans called Dr. Kent Sullivan (a Boarded Surgical Specialist) and Dr. Deborah Kemper (an Internal Medicine Specialist). The two form a husband and wife team known as West Coast Equine in Somis. Dr. Sullivan was able to slowly walk the horses 600 yards to the barn area, though it was quite painful for the animals to move. He noted that the only obvious burn damage was singed tails, eyelashes and muzzles. The horses were definitely in need of supportive care, though, so they were moved three miles to a nearby horse ranch—Joe and Sharon Goodman’s horse rescue ranch.

Treating the Burns

The animals were started on intravenous fluids, steroids and pain relievers. After four days, as skin died and began to slough off, it became apparent that the horses had second- and third-degree burns. In 10 days the skin had, in varying degrees, fallen off their faces, legs, chests, girth, groin and under their tails, down to muscle. There was also damage to coronary bands and heel bulbs.

These burns were severe enough—especially on hard-to-heal legs and the swollen flesh—that they did not lend themselves to skin grafting and suturing.

Fortunately, two manufacturers donated products that helped speed the healing process. ACell, Inc., a Columbia, Maryland veterinary and medical company, donated a new product that aids in wound healing—a medicated patch called ACell Vet. Applied to the raw wound, the patch creates an extracellular matrix of collagens and growth factors that provides a “scaffold” for new cells to grow on, according to ACell director of customer service Mike Manning. Nearly 50 of these patches were placed on the wounds during each dressing change by Drs. Sullivan and Kemper.

Healing this amount of damaged skin is tremendously hard for the animals, and they began to lose weight rapidly. “Nutrition is very important because of the metabolic demands on the body,” Dr. Kemper pointed out. The burns were healing, but the horses’ overall health was deteriorating. Two to three weeks into treatment, the horses “hit rock bottom.”

Then came a second lucky break. On November 12, Dave Thornberg, sales rep for SweetPro Feeds of Walhalla, N.D., saw the horses’ plight on Fox News. The company had introduced a new nutritional supplement, EquiPride, in April. EquiPride is a fermented feed that allows a horse to fully digest its forage. It also delivers vitamins and trace minerals needed by the animal while adding yeast, biotin and omega 3 oils in a blend of flax, oats, barley malt and wheat.“We thought, ‘Hey, what a wonderful way to show how our product will help,’ ” he said. So the company donated a supply to augment the horses’ treatment. “EquiPride came at the perfect time to meet their nutritional needs,” says Dr. Kemper. “I think it has helped these horses a lot.”

Back at the Ranch

Thirty-five days after the fire, four of the six horses were well enough to return to the W-D ranch. The two remaining horses stayed at the Goodmans’ “MASH” unit. One remained because of possible laminitis, and the other remained mostly to provide company for the more severely burned horse.

And the DeVans, along with family and staff, are working hard to rebuild what was lost.

The Medical Team

• West Coast Equine — Kent Sullivan, VMD (Boarded Surgeon); Deborah Kemper, DVM (Internal Medicine); (805) 987-7191; wcoasteqn@aol.com

• ACell, Inc. 410-715-1700; www.acell.com

• SweetPro Feeds — 1-800-327-9222; www.equipride.biz