SYLMAR, Calif. — Amid the charred landscape of Little Tujunga Canyon Road in Sylmar on Wednesday stood the remains of Rancho Padilla and the carcasses of nearly 30 horses who died in the fast-moving Creek fire.
The Padilla family was there Wednesday morning, surveying the smoldering ranch their father built more than 20 years ago. They somberly counted up the dead horses, whose charred bodies lined dozens of stalls.
The family, who lives up the hill from the ranch, had awakened Tuesday to flames. One fire truck came and told them to leave.
"All I could think about was the horses, the horses, the horses. And they were like, 'Get out, get out, get out,'" said Patricia Padilla, whose family owns the ranch. "The structures can get rebuilt, but the lives of the horses can't. ... That's my biggest heartbreak."
The ranch, which boards horses, had more than 60 housed there, said Virginia Padilla, Patricia's older sister. They put the count of dead horses at 29.
The family was familiar with each owner and would be calling them throughout the day to deliver the grim news and offer condolences.
On Wednesday morning, the smell of fire hung in the air and mixed with the odor of burned carcasses. Blackened horseshoes and traces of blood littered the stalls as a heavy silence blanketed the ranch. The stillness was broken only occasionally by the whinnies of a surviving horse and the crowing of a rooster.
Shelby Hope brought Oscar Martinez, a horse owner, and others up Wednesday morning to see whether the horses had survived and how she could help. She's been coming to the ranch for about five years, to attend rodeos and spend time with friends.
"It hurts a lot because these horses are family," Hope said as she stood near the bodies. "They're not just horses — they're horses that we know, that we've become close to."
"Do you remember the white horse we used to ride?" Martinez asked Hope, pointing out the charred remains of one animal.
Martinez walked past each stall, tears in his eyes, as he identified each body. There was Selena, a baby horse, and her mother — both badly burned.
Farther down, in Stall 40, Martinez had boarded his horse, Chikilin. He had gotten a call from a friend at 5 a.m. Tuesday saying that the ranch was burning.
By the time Martinez arrived, everything was on fire. Flames forced him to turn back, and he feared the worst — that his horse had died. Then he saw his friend running, leading Chikilin away from the ranch. "I was crying," Martinez recounted Wednesday.
There were memories everywhere for the Padilla family. The now-burned gazebo is where Patricia Padilla had celebrated her 25th birthday this past Saturday. Farther up stood the arena where they would hold events, like the one planned for this Sunday for the Virgin de Guadalupe. They had invited horse owners to come for free food, a Mass and to ride.
The family has had the ranch for 26 years and has seen the mountains around them catch fire before.
"We've always had fires, and it's always been one of those things like, 'We'll be OK,'" Virginia said.
"I guess it was just," she trailed off, struggling to find the words. "We weren't."
One of Virginia's horses is in the hospital, and another, along with her sister's horse, Scar, are doing fine. Still, they felt for their boarders and the horses they'd lost. As Patricia saw the numerous horses that had perished, she remembered the boarders riding the animals and coming for relaxation.
Her father built the ranch mainly for his children because they do equestrian riding, Patricia said.
"Honestly, it feels like we lost a big part of our family," she said. "To see it all gone ... it's heartbreaking."
As the Padilla family took stock of the loss, Hope, 20, helped how she could, loading a trailer she'd brought with a horse and a donkey that had survived.
She planned to return to help take a pony out.
Running her hand, a horseshoe ring on her finger, through the pony's mane, she said, "You made it buddy."