Animals evacuated from O.C. fire find temporary home at fairgrounds

As flames crept closer to their Orange Park Acres neighborhood, tortoises Hermione, Harry and Voldemort needed a way out.

Their owners, Charity and Max Pepys, said thick smoke was filling the air outside their home when they got word to evacuate.

The blaze, dubbed the Canyon 2 fire, broke out around 9:20 a.m. Monday near the 91 Freeway and Gypsum Canyon Road and quickly leaped the 241 Toll Road. Thousands of residents in portions of Orange and Anaheim Hills were ordered to evacuate.

As if leaving their home with their three daughters wasn’t overwhelming enough, the couple said they also had to figure out where their animals, including dogs, a cat, pigs, goats and three tortoises, could find shelter.

They left quickly without any belongings.

“In that moment when they tell you to leave, you think you’d know what to grab, but it’s overwhelming,” Charity Pepys said.

They made several trips back to their home, each time loading their SUV with more animals and driving them to safety.

A day later, the tortoises, along with their goat and pig siblings, were safe and sound in a hay-lined pen at the OC Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa.

The Pepys’ animals are among 127 horses, six pigs, six goats, two sheep, six miniature horses and one steer currently being housed at the fairgrounds, which opened Monday to large animals evacuated in the fire.

The fairgrounds is fully staffed with volunteers but is accepting donations or loans of stall panels so it can build more holding areas for affected horses, spokeswoman Terry Moore said.

The animals are welcome to stay at the fairgrounds until their owners can return home, or in some cases, rebuild their homes, Moore said.

“We’re here and we won’t turn anyone away,” she said.

The Orange County Animal Care Center is accepting small animals such as dogs, cats, birds and reptiles. Evacuated horses also are being directed to Los Alamitos Race Course and to Fairplex in Pomona.

By Tuesday afternoon, the Canyon 2 blaze had scorched 7,500 acres in Orange, Anaheim and Tustin, destroying 14 structures and damaging 22 others, fire officials said.

Authorities said the fire is about 25% contained and that much of its westward progression has been stopped. Crews are now fighting the eastern portion of the fire.

The Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach fire departments are among several local and Los Angeles County agencies battling the blaze.

“We have to ask ourselves when disaster strikes, ‘What are we going to do?’” said Costa Mesa fire Capt. Chris Coates. “We can’t handle it by ourselves. We help our partners out and they help us out. That’s how we get by.”

Residents who were displaced can only wait for updates as fire crews work to spare as many homes as possible.

Pamela Alexander was driving between her two homes in Orange Park Acres on Monday when she caught a glimpse in her rearview mirror of flames glowing bright orange and licking up the hillside.

Alexander, who has lived in Orange Park Acres since 1997, said the community — known for its equestrian areas — has been close to being evacuated during previous fires and that she’s been good at keeping calm.

But on Monday, the alarming visual provided confirmation that the situation was dire.

“That’s when I lost it,” she said. “It’s terrifying.”

She turned on her sprinklers and hosed down the roof of one of her homes and evacuated with her three quarter horses.

On Tuesday, she was at the fairgrounds feeding and caring for her horses, Peppy, Lucky and Sonora. She commended the Fair & Event Center for its hospitality, noting that staff provided fresh towels and toothbrushes for people who didn’t want to leave their animals overnight.

“I cannot believe how great they’ve been,” Alexander said. “It’s amazing how everyone has pulled together.”

Some residents without trailers walked their horses, steers and goats to safety.

Stacey Haden-Smith of Mission Viejo, who boards her paint quarter horse, Maggie, in Orange Park Acres, made the trek down busy Chapman Avenue with cars whipping past her to get to El Modena High School in Orange, where a shelter was set up for affected residents.

Classes were still underway when she and Maggie arrived at the campus. People told her she was being hasty when she opted to evacuate before an official order had been given, but she wasn’t taking any chances.

“There’s a special connection people have with their horses,” she said Tuesday while petting Maggie on the nose inside her temporary stable at the fairgrounds.

“I trust her and she has to trust me,” Haden-Smith said.

Twitter: @HannahFryTCN

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