California is spending another summer beneath a canopy of smoke as wildfires continue to ravage communities statewide.

Many equestrian facilities have found themselves in the path of the fires’ destruction—Rockridge Equine Rest and Retirement among them.

Located in Pope Valley, amongst the sprawling vineyards of Napa County, the registered non-profit took a direct hit from the LNU Lightning Complex Fire. Blake Gardiner, who operates the facility with his mother, owner Debbie Gardiner, recounted the days leading up to their evacuation.

“There were four fires: three to the south—Gamble, Hennessey, and the 15-10 fire—and one unnamed one to the north. We’ll call it, ‘Pope Valley.’

“Monday, we were watching the southern fires. Gamble, near Lake Berryessa, was big and close. Tuesday, we evacuated the main property and took precautions by digging fire breaks around the southern edge of ours and our neighbor’s properties, but the wind was blowing the fire south, so it ended up being ok.

“That night, Pope Valley popped up like a whisper of a campfire at the north end of our valley, exactly where the 2015 Valley Fire stopped. Wednesday morning around 6:00 am, it was bigger, but not concerning. By 8:00 am it had exploded, but the wind was blowing everywhere so we couldn’t tell where it was going.”

Over 100 miles away in Woodside, a team of trainers and volunteers hitched up their trailers and made their way north to assist in the evacuation.

“On the north side, we prepped all the horses with halters and pulled them in from the pastures and far turnouts. Due to the immediate danger of the fire, local animal rescue crews were unable to assist in the evacuation, so everything was riding on the Woodside volunteers,” said Gardiner. 

“When everyone arrived, the flames had just reached our main pasture fence. We loaded 25 horses, including Minis who were not interested in being rescued, in 10 minutes and took off as fire burned its’ way towards the back of the house.”

Last photo taken as the Gardiners drove away with final load of horses

After escaping the fire, the horses were relocated to the Sonoma Horse Park, which was gearing up for the first week of their Split Rock Jumping Tour. Stalls were given free of charge to the Rockridge rescues, as well as many other horses evacuated from around the valley. Additionally, they were provided with feed, shavings, and an RV spot. 

After a week of assuming the worst, the Gardiners were allowed back on to their property to survey the damage. 

“The word of the day,” Gardiner jokes on video, “is defensible space.”

In a 17- minute video posted to Blake’s Facebook page, he surveys the property and surrounding area. Fields and mountain tops are charred leading up to and around the edges of the property, and into pastures like a spider’s web. Amazingly, the majority of the structures on the property, as well as the family home were spared. 

After the fire

Posted by Blake Gardiner on Wednesday, August 26, 2020

“We make sure to keep the grass near the buildings trimmed just for this very reason,” he explained, “but from what I saw as I drove away, it was a goner.”

“Pastures are damaged,” Gardiner continued. “Fencing, gates, water lines, and a 4,000 gallon water tank need to be replaced. We have an ongoing GoFundMe Charity campaign that we are hoping to use to not only repair the damage, but to make an additional donation to Sonoma Horse Park, as well paying expenses to those who drove out to help in the evacuation process. None of these groups have requested payment.

“So many people have endured far worse as a result of these fires, and we are incredibly fortunate and thankful to be in the position we are with our property and community support. Thank you to the Pope Valley community, the Woodside rescue crew, and Sonoma Horse Park and Split Rock, and to so many other heroes in this situation.”