A Hero in California

For many horse owners in the San Diego area, the new year got off to a scary start. Fires raged through the county, threatening homes and people. Thankfully, one man offered his farm as a refuge for the four-legged victims.

Ruben Mageno of the Lazy A Ranch in Alpine, California, was awakened at 5 a.m. on Wednesday, January 3, by frantic calls that didn’t stop until 10 o’clock that night. “Fire!” was the cry, and its name was “Viejas,” located in the hilly region of eastern San Diego County. Started by a carelessly flicked cigarette on Interstate 8, it claimed 10,300 acres, five homes, and challenged 2,000 firefighters along a 22-mile front before it was under control on Saturday, January 6.

More than 500 people were evacuated from their residences. Miraculously, only three people were hurt in the blaze—a firefighter who fell and two other civilians who incurred minor injuries. Airborne water tankers and bulldozers aided the troops who halted the fire’s progression. Mother Nature was also beneficial by calming the winds and producing a light rain.

Mageno’s ranch—never seriously threatened by the blaze—became a sanctuary for animals displaced by the fire, including more than 100 horses, goats, sheep, pigs and cattle. “People who were driving down the road found animals wandering and brought them here,” reports Mageno, who has previously offered his farm in disaster situations. “One horse had to be euthanized, but two that were burned pretty badly are expected to recover, with lots of rehabilitation.”

The Los Angeles Times reported on January 4 that “one horse, wild from fright, ran onto the road and was struck and killed. Veterinarians were examining rescued horses to see if their lungs had been scarred from inhaling smoke and cinders. Two owners rode their prized horses to safety, and a truckload of goats made its way through winding, smoky roads to a shelter,” probably Mageno’s ranch.

On his 76 acres, Mageno, age 41, has been breeding and training cutting, reining, team penning and sorting horses; he is also a former director for the San Diego Cutting Horse Association, as well as a NCHA “AA” judge. His heart is big, and his neighbors—and local humane organizations—know it.

“There are lots of backyard horses, private riding horses, scattered throughout the hillsides,” says Mageno, “and a few people were away when the fire started. One guy was skiing in Colorado, saw the story on the news, took a plane home and found that folks had rescued his horses.” Even at press time, “a couple of horses were still not claimed,” according to Mageno.

The good Samaritan graphically describes “tears of panic first, then tears of joy. When the fires started, houses were burning, horses were frantically running down the street, people were calling up—not knowing if their animals were alive.”

There was a wealth of human resources to assist in the organization of this emergency situation. With an evaluation he’s not so comfortable sharing, Mageno reports “more people were helping with the animal rescue than the human rescue, figuring the people could fend for themselves.” The Red Cross closed its four interim shelters on January 6.

Although his farm was designated a disaster relief site, Mageno admits that, of course, he couldn’t just keep tons of extra food on hand for when the unexpected occurs. He remembers that volunteer helpers shopped for supplies for the rescued animals, but hardly any store owners were willing to donate the needed goods—a fact that surprised and dismayed many. [sm]

To read more about preparing for emergencies, turn to page 42 for a complete checklist.—Ed.

How to Help

Perhaps you’d like to help just as Rubin Mageno did, by offering your farm as a disaster relief site. Contact your local humane organizations or go directly to the Humane Society of the United States Website at There, you can identify your regional office. Call or email, offering your help. Individuals can also join a list of volunteer animal emergency personnel who will be called upon to work in the field or in shelters during emergency situations, including fires, floods, earthquakes and the like. For those who love animals, it’s a great way to help out when the need arises.—SS






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