by Denise P. Hearst

Five months before the fire that destroyed nearly the entire western Sierra town of Paradise, California (killing more than 80 people as of this writing), Richard and Sharron Metcalf moved there from Utah to be closer to their grandchildren. Sadly, the Metcalfs lost their new home and everything they own . . . except for their eight Arabians. “We’ve been married 46 years, so we had a lot of belongings!” says Sharron. “The house, barn, garage, everything is gone,” Richard adds. “The only thing standing is the chimney.

“The town of Paradise is built among the trees,” continues Richard. “And that’s part of what attracted us to the area. We had benches and chairs at various locations around our eight-acre property, and each evening we would pick one, and just sit down and watch the horses play. We loved the house, we loved the setting, the six-stall barn . . . it was perfect. We were planning to live there forever.”

But all that changed on November 8, 2018, when the Metcalfs found themselves joining thousands of others in that desperate evacuation, forced to leave their horses behind. 

Early that morning, Richard Metcalf was in his home office when he noticed that the sky was getting dark from smoke. He dialed 911. “The operator said, ‘Are you in Paradise? Get out! Get out now!’” he recounts. “I said that I had horses to get out, and she said, ‘Open the gates. You need to get out now. I’m not kidding!’”

Richard awakened Sharron, and as she says, “We just had to go. There was already smoke in the bedroom. I think the death toll was so high because there was just no warning. People were sleeping.”

But first, what to do about their eight Arabians? Four mares, three of whom were in foal, along with one gelding were out in a pasture and arena. The two just-weaned foals, and another gelding were in the barn in stalls with 60’ runs. “We had an arena and a field that had been grazed down, and a couple fields that had a lot of vegetation,” said Sharron. “So we closed off the ones that had vegetation, and left them in the bare areas. We had no time to hook up a trailer or anything. We later read that the fire was traveling at a rate of eight football fields per minute.”

Adds Richard, “There was hay stacked just outside the fences so I knew the horses could get the hay. I had really heavy tarps on top of the hay, so if any ash fell on that, it probably won’t burn. We also had a small pond on the property, and that gate was open, so I knew they could get to water. I only had time to open the stall doors for the horses in the barn, hoping the weanlings would find their way out to their mothers.

“I was still in the barn when Sharron was laying on the truck horn, because the trees around the house were turning white with ash. When a tree gets to a certain temperature, it explodes, and we were already hearing explosions of nearby trees and propane tanks. Our fences are made of concrete pillars and pipe. So that’s why our horses didn’t go through the fences. I couldn’t let them off the property because our lane leads to a major road, and if the horses had gotten out, they could have caused an accident, and we couldn’t take a chance of someone losing their life because of our horses.

 “So we left them, and all we could do was hope for the best. It was so hard . . .  those horses depend upon us to take care of them, and to forsake them like that was painful. All of our children are grown and have families of their own, so we didn’t have to worry, like some of our neighbors did, that our child was in school that morning . . .   that was a huge blessing that we counted right there. It was just the two of us, and we knew where we were.” Richard mentioned another blessing: “Sharron and I complement each other quite well, as far as being calm in a situation like that . . .   because if you have one panicky person, that’s dangerous. We are both fairly level-headed — that’s probably why we’re still married!

“We could hear the trees exploding around us as we drove. We got up on the main road, and it was gridlock. It took us a good hour to go a mile. There are four main roads out of town, two were closed because of the fire, so everything was being funneled toward one road, Skyway. We started seeing more fires billowing up. A fireman came by, and we asked which way to go, and he said, ‘I don’t know. There are fires everywhere.’ Running north and south through the center of town is an asphalt walking path. We had four-wheel drive, so we jumped the curb and got on that path and took off south. I’m surprised more people didn’t follow us. We continued down this path, and there were trees burning on both sides of us. That’s one reason we decided to take the path: with all that gridlock, if trees came down in there, we didn’t want to be trapped. We just stepped on the gas so the tires wouldn’t catch fire. We went as far as we could until we got to a car blocking the path; someone put it there on purpose because it was a whole lot worse beyond. We cut across a couple ditches and got back over to Skyway, but we were quite a ways down by then. Normally it’s only 20 minutes to Chico from our house, but it took six hours to get there. We saw people who had run out of gas pushing cars off the road. It just so happened that we had a full tank that day.”

Once Richard and Sharron (still wearing her slippers) were safely in Chico, they began the grueling wait for news of their home — and their horses. “We had a lot of people putting the word out,” says Sharron. “Our daughter was posting about the horses on Facebook. So many great people helped, and we don’t even know them. One woman had a brother-in-law who worked for PG&E. He was working in Paradise at night, and during the day he was going around to different properties, letting people know if their places were still there or not. His sister-in-law read the post, contacted him and told him where our house was located. He went by on Saturday morning, and called his sister-in-law and told her that he saw eight horses, alive. She relayed that to us. We contacted the North Valley Disaster Group. They were the only group that was allowed into the area to try to rescue animals. When they found out that there was a herd of eight horses in one place, that became their priority. A San Francisco Chronicle newsperson went out there with them and videoed the rescuers standing in our arena with the horses around them.”

“To have found this many horses, under these conditions without a fatality is just a miracle,” says Richard. “There was a lot of singed hair, manes and tails, and our gelding Renegade RSM (TR Mercury x RSM Manti [by Om El Bandeiras]) had burns on his muzzle, but they were OK, considering. I think they survived because they went into the arena. The arena was a little over half an acre, and there were no big trees around it. That was a key.”

Once the horses got to Chico, Richard and two volunteers transported them to Arabian breeder and veterinarian, Cory Soltau, in Pleasanton, California, where they would remain for the time being. “I got a call from Isaac Taylor about the Metcalfs’ horses,” says Cory. “And soon after, Richard called to see if I had room. I said, ‘Come on down. Bring as many as you need to.’ Richard arrived about midnight on Saturday night with three horses, and then an hour later, the other two trailers came with the other five horses. I could tell that Richard was a little shell-shocked. He said, ‘What you see is everything I own — the truck and the clothes I’m wearing.’

“We helped all the horses settle in and relax, and then I treated the burns on the gelding’s face. He’s coming along. We’ve been treating them topically with some silver sulfadiazine. And that seems to be keeping everything supple and not cracking too badly. Some of the skin is sloughing a little, so we’re being careful about not letting the underlying tissue get infected. It was painful, and it was hard for him to eat and chew. Just by putting the creams on his face, he felt better, and I’m giving him some banamine. I’m giving him a softer, wet food, so he doesn’t have to open his mouth so much.

“Now he’s doing great. He’ll be fine. I turn him out in the arena. He loves to show off. His mane and tail are a little singed, and he’s got a few little cuts on his body, but those are minor compared to his face. The rescuers thought that Renegade may have been trapped under some debris.” (Richard now believes that Renegade never left the barn.)

“The mares and foals are unscathed,” adds Cory. “They were a little traumatized and looked depressed the first day, but now I’ve got them turned out in the pasture, and they are running around and eating really well. And the two foals are now un-weaned, but we don’t care!”

 “Cory is so sweet and gracious. He took them in,” says Sharron. “Our gelding Renegade has been Top Ten at Canadian Nationals, and Bronze Champion at the Las Vegas Breeders Finals. It’s funny — if ever one of our horses got hurt, it was always Renegade!” 

The Metcalfs’ foundation horses are of Taylor Ranch breeding, and represent the Metcalfs’ return to Arabians after many years of making their family and careers the priority. In the 1960s, Richard Metcalf was working at the John Rogers Ranch in Walnut Creek, California. “Mr. Rogers gave me a chance, and I spent a couple of years cleaning a lot of stalls, painting a lot of fence and cutting a lot of weeds. I learned how to train horses at night and every other spare moment I could get. This was in the days of *Serafix, Karadjordje, and Natez. After three years I became an assistant trainer to Murrel Lacey, and I stayed on with him until the mid ‘70s.”

Richard and Sharron met at the 1972 Scottsdale show. “That was on February 12th, on a Saturday, and six months later on August 12th on a Saturday we got hitched,” says Richard. “Sharron always admired Arabians, she had a Half-Arabian mare, but never showed or anything. She lived in Morgan Hill, and used to watch the Rogers Arabians horse vans go by when we were headed for shows, and she’d just drool. So she decided to drive down to Scottsdale and watch the show. It must have been fate.”

“We got out of the horse business for years, and when we got older we decided that we couldn’t stand not having Arabians in our life,” says Sharron. “Isaac Taylor has been our go-to guy, and he has been amazing to us over the years.”

“When we first visited Taylor ranch, we were just going to buy a couple pleasure horses to enjoy,” says Richard. “But then we pulled in, and I saw this kid working on a tractor. I told him I’d like to speak with the manager or head trainer. And he said, ‘That would be me, I’m Isaac.’ We ended up picking out two mares as our foundation, and started breeding. We’ve had a blast doing it. We leased some mares and improved our stock right away. And then our very first show was back to Scottsdale again. It was in the Signature Auction class, and our filly TR Seta Bella (HK Marcello x TR Silk Boquet) placed in the Top Ten. We’ve had a couple Canadian Top Tens, and a few others here and there. We’ve really, really enjoyed it.” 

When we spoke with Richard, just six days after the fire, he seemed inexplicably calm and serene. He explained, “As far as losing the place, if you had spoken with me before we knew what the horses’ status was, I would probably have been breaking down every 30 seconds. But knowing that the horses are okay at Blackhawk Valley Ranch, and that Cory is taking care of them, makes everything seem alright. He is wonderful. I suppose we’ll always have those ‘I should have’ moments, like, why didn’t we hook up the trailer? We would have had to switch hitches, and only taken two horses . . . but as it turned out the horses were better off staying together. And who knows what those precious minutes might have cost us?

“As far as processing it all . . . I’m spending almost every spare moment trying to make a list of everything we lost, because that’s what the insurance company wants. We’re just trying to remember everything, that’s the hardest part. Both of us lost our parents years ago . . . and now we’ve lost all our photos of them, and the flag that was on my dad’s coffin. All of our three daughters’ baby photos, too. Last night Sharron suddenly remembered, ‘Our Christmas village!’ We’ve been creating this Christmas village for about 15 years. Every year the grandkids loved coming to see it, and every year we’d add to it. And that’s gone. Sharron keeps thinking about this little clay bear Christmas decoration that one of our daughters made when she was in second grade. It’s the things you can’t replace . . .”

When we last spoke in early December, the Metcalfs were staying in a Sacramento motel, awaiting word about when residents would be allowed back into Paradise. So far, it’s only law enforcement, rescue and utilities personnel. Until they see what’s left, they cannot make a decision about whether to rebuild or walk away. “We have seen some aerial pictures. We can see that our RV that was in a storage facility is also a pile of ash.” Richard says. “We are hoping that enough of the trees will still be alive to make us want to be there.

“But no matter what happens, we are grateful that we got out and that our horses survived. We’ll spend this Christmas with our daughter and her family in Stockton, California, knowing that our biggest Christmas wishes have come true. We’re alive.”

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