BONSALL, United States (AFP) - A line of charred stables running down blackened hills have become graveyards for dozens of horses caught in the raging flames of a southern California wildfire that burned them alive.
"It was hell," said a security employee at the San Luis Rey Training Centre in Bonsall, an hour north of San Diego. It was "The worst night of my life."
The employee, who asked not to be identified by name, said that 75 per cent of the stables burned at the centre, where some 500 elite horses were stabled and trained.
"They're the most highly bred," and in "several barns here the cheapest horse is US$250,000." That equates to about S$330,000.
Seeing the blaze approaching at high speed, they decided to release the horses to give them a chance to escape.
As the air clogged with smoke the terrified horses neighed and galloped in circles, lost.
"I was kicked; trampled," the employee said of the rescue efforts, describing how the horses clamoured to get back to their stables.
"It's their safety zone," he said. "We had to run them off but they saw the others get in, they're herd animals."
San Diego County, which includes Bonsall, is horse country, dotted with vast, opulent ranches in a landscape that evokes Tuscany with palm trees.
But these desert trees, which line the roads of the region, turned into torches overnight into Friday morning, as fire driven by winds gusting upwards of 130kmh swallowed whole hills in minutes.
Thousands of firefighters are still battling six major wildfires in California that have destroyed hundreds of structures and devastated tens of thousands of acres of land.
The blazes cap the worst year on record for fires in California.
Throughout the night the equestrian community banded together to save the horses, with owners and trainers rushing to take the animals to safety in trailers.
The San Luis Rey employee said volunteers were key: "Horse people are wonderful, they've given us everything we need." The rescue efforts were a tough task, said Ross Fowler, a battalion chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
"It's hard when horses are scared then don't comply - they are heavy; they can hurt you," Fowler said.
Rebecca Wilson, a 21-year-old trainer, stayed up late into the night to drive horses to safety.
"We saved at least 20 horses just with this truck," said Wilson.
"It was raining ashes," she said, adding it was necessary to go quickly through the smoke and darkness as fire trucks came and went.
"A two-year-old had never been in a truck, so it took a lot of patience," she said.
"You cannot force a 1,000-pound animal into a trailer truck in traffic in the dark."
The whole night seems surreal," Wilson said.
"It's heartbreaking to see the horses we've lost."