Valley News -

By Tony Ault
Staff Writer 

Mountain Center lost horses found in wake of Cranston Fire


Last updated 7/31/2018 at 12:20pm

Tony Ault

Idyllwild horse owner Gary Gray looks for two horses feared lost in the McCall Memorial Park area of Mountain Center. The home in the background was that of Mary McDonald, one of five homes destroyed in the Cranston fire Wednesday, July 25.

There was some good news, and some not so good news coming from out of the Cranston Fire for the two Idyllwild evacuees who sought their lost horses in the Mountain Center area devastated by the blaze July 25.

The good news is the owner of “Hewie,” a Mustang owned by Idyllwild resident Gary Gray, one of the three lost horses turned loose from their corral by firefighters Wednesday, July 25, as the Cranston Fire raced through Mountain Center, burning homes and other structures. Hewie was found on his own, back in his burned-out corral. The horse's hoofs, tail, and mane were all singed, evidence he barely managed to escape the raging flames, Gray said. He is now resting at another Mountain Center home that was spared from the fire.

In the search Gray, after finding no trace of his horse the next day, told this Valley News reporter on the scene, “They always come back home, you know.” He was right.

Not so good was the second horse, a 40-year-old steed by the name of “Breeze,” who was found dead Thursday near the home of Mary McDonnell, whose home was one of the two on McCall Road that were destroyed in the initial fire.

While McDonnell lost her Breeze and her Mountain Center home in the fire, Riverside County Animal Control and good Mountain Center neighbors saw four of her goats, a large pig, and a honking goose still in their corral, and helped by bringing them water and food.

Gray reported Sunday, July 29, that the third horse had also been found with some burns, but alive.

Meanwhile, Clayton Rutherford, Grays close friend and a professional animal tracker, who tried, but failed to find any tracks from Hewie, Breeze and the third horse at the fire scene in the initial search, was relieved when the horses were located. “You know, Clayton was devastated Thursday when he couldn’t find any tracks. He told me ‘I knew I could find them.’” Rutherford did find a track of a bobcat that must have escaped the fire in the dusty road at the McDonnell home.

Since then, a number of residents have come forth with photos and aerial shots of horse found loose and grazing around the perimeter of the fire that may be able to help locate other missing horses and animals lost as a result of the Cranston fire.

The search begins

The saga of Hewie the horse and Gray’s frantic search began soon after he and his wife, living in Idyllwild where the Cranston Fire was quickly approaching Thursday, July 26.

Gray and his wife complied with U.S. Forest Service and Riverside County Sheriff’s orders to evacuate their home during the Cranston Fire that raged south of the mountain city Wednesday, July 25.

However, his attention turned to his aging horse, and the two others, Breeze and Galey boarded at Mary McDonnell’s home on McCall Park Road in Mountain Center. They were in their corral together when he last saw them and heard firefighters had to turn them loose, so they would not be trapped by the encroaching wildfire.

He had earlier received a call from friends that Mary’s home was one of five burned in the fire Wednesday and his horse and others were still loose in the smoldering McCall Park Road neighborhood. He was not sure if they were still alive but was hopeful.

Gray told the Valley News on the scene Thursday: “I appealed to the Forest Service and Animal Control to find out if they were OK.” He said at the time no one knew it they were alive or dead. Rutherford a good friend and professional tracker contacted him offering his help finding the horses.

The search began. Gray and Rutherford, hoping to find their horses or their tracks near the burned-out corral arrived in Hemet on Highway 74 looking to get to the McCall Memorial Park area where they were boarded. They got turned around by the California Highway Patrol and Caltrans with the fire threatening to jump over a bridge over the dry South Fork River about 4 miles up the highway. Highway 74 was reported open Sunday to limited traffic.

Electing to take Sage Road to Wilson Valley Road and up through Anza to get to the McCall Park home the men stopped at the Anza Lion’s Club at its Gymkhana field where 18 horses had been evacuated from the fire area earlier. He was hoping one was his, or the two others. They were not there. Their plan was then to go to the CalFire and U.S. Forest Service Incident Command Post at Lake Hemet.

Gray told a Valley News reporter at the field and the Lions Club members tending the evacuated horses, “I’m trying to find out one way or the other, and I have Animal Control looking for them. Hopefully they have been there and searched for them.” While en route to the Anza location, he learned his horse was found but the other two could still be missing.

He said of the other horses, “Neighbors said they haven’t found any but they hadn’t found any dead ones yet.” Several homeowners on McCall Park Road had stayed home and not evacuated. Their homes were untouched by the flames, but sheds and corrals were burned.

Gray and Rutherford and the Valley News were escorted to the site only to look to see if the other two horses had survived and might be found. At the scene the McDonald home and neighbor Scott Dunn’s home reduced to ashes and still smoldering. The hill behind the home was still smoking, the charred timbers of several sheds were seen, the twisted remains of a quad runner and a mini-truck lay near one of the homes. The trails of orange Phos-Chek that had been dropped by the Cal Fire aerial bombers fighting the fire could be seen on the ridges.

They found the tracks of what appeared to be a surviving bobcat, but no horse tracks. A search of the area was unsuccessful for the missing quadrupeds. The neighbors were called and promised to keep searching for the still lost two lost horses.

Meanwhile, U.S. Forest Service firefighter Brian Scott from the Idyllwild Ranger Station who patrols the McCall Road area called in a request to bring in some water and food for the pig, goose, and four goats at the McDonnell home trying to cool off in the shade. “If they don’t get water soon, they won’t make it,” Rutherford said.

“They are on the way,” said Scott after radioing the need to animal control. Other surviving horses in the corrals whinnied and stomped the ground reminding they might need some water as well.

Tony Ault

Hemet Lake is the temporary Incident Command Post for the Cranston Fire that burns in the background. By 4 p.m. July 26, 7,500 acres burned with only 5 percent containment. A Fire Management Team was scheduled to take over the command for the fire Thursday evening.

But, by Sunday morning Gray and his wife were on their way back to their Idyllwild home, kept safe by the more than 1,000 firefighter who fended off the Cranston Fire flames licking at the township of Idyllwild. Gray Saturday returned to tend to Hewie, cleaning and caring for his wounds. Hewie and Galey were together again in a corral, still standing at the Mountain Center home of Noah Whitney.

“We just can’t thank the neighbors, sheriff, forest service and CalFire enough for all the help they gave us,” Gray said from his truck phone driving home Sunday. “It is so good to have good neighbors.”

Those concerns for the many other animals, including those from Living Free, affected by the fire were displayed by the many San Jacinto mountain community residents who helped move them to animal evacuation centers in Anza, Banning and San Jacinto. The Anza Lions Gymkhana field and corral stays open to horses and other large animals with Lions members offering overnight camping, showers and restrooms at the Kirby Road location.


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