If two things are clear in the wake of the large brush fires in Manorville and Ridge they are that the horseback riding community jumps to help one another out and that an organized horse evacuation plan is necessary for the equine-dense Suffolk County.
An estimated and another 100 more could have been evacuated had the fire changed course.
"The fire departments really don't know what they are facing in terms of horses," said Chuck Rocco, a horse trainer from Flanders, who raced to Manorville when he heard horses' lives were in danger.
He'd like to see a census taken of how many horses are boarded at stables and backyard barns completed in every fire district, as well as lists gathered with phone numbers and addresses for those with space in their barns and trailers to transport. He plans on contacting the county and local fire departments to try and implement a plan in the next few weeks.
Despite no formal evacuation plan, word spread fast by phone and in the Internet that horses needed to be moved. Groups like the East End Live Stock and Horsemen's Association, of which many of Rocco's clients are members.
The Long Island Equine Disaster Preparedness Facebook page, which had been set up by a Bohemia horse owner before Hurricane Irene hit Long Island this summer, was used to ask for help. Neptune Feed & Saddlery and the Hampton Classic Horse Show also sent information over its Facebook page.
Dozens and dozens of trailers arrived at Exit 70 off the Long Island Expressway. "It was a gangbuster of trailer after trailer," Rocco said. Trailers were only allowed so far. Many horseowners walked their horses out on foot. Rocco ended up picking up one whose owner was riding one bomb-proof horse bareback, just with a bridle.
Darlene Wilcox, who has owned Hillcrest Stable in Riverhead since 1988 and took some evacuated horses from Westhampton Beach during the 1995 brush fire, hitched up her trailer. With a halter and lead rope, she and her son, 13 year old son Nicholas, walked up to barns looking for horses. "There were small fires, and we could feel the spray from the firemen's hoses," she said. It was smokey and they covered their noses with their shirts.
Wilcox told trailers they could drop horses off at her stable, though she ended up returning to Riverhead with an empty trailer.
Rocco even turned away a horse shipping company that offered to send four tractor-trailers.
In Manorville, Michelle Zachman, who runs a private boarding facility in Manorville, south of the Expressway, took in five horses. She referred to the evacuation effort as "organized chaos." But, she said, "When something like this happens, people just come together."
At the stable, Wilcox said horses kept arriving up to 10 p.m. "I didn't even know who they were."
On Tuesday, she was fielding calls from horse owners looking for their horses. Many didn't know where they ended up, just that they were trailered out of harms way. "They'll find them eventually," Wilcox said. "They're here and they're safe. We'll work the rest of the details out later."
Many of the horses were sheltered in paddocks. Boarders' horses were juggled around. "I told them, 'If it was us in that situation, you'd want these barns doing the same thing,'" she said.