Late last year, Northern California experienced the largest and deadliest wildfire in recent history. Butte County was on fire for 17 days. The Camp Fire killed at least 85 people and changed the lives of thousands more.
Countless more animals—including horses—were injured, traumatized, displaced, or killed by the fire. Those that survived needed care, even if their owners had evacuated the area. That’s where we came in.
During the Fire
Rescue workers, owners, and good Samaritans brought horses and livestock to the Butte County Fairgrounds for shelter and veterinary care. During the peak of the fire, the Butte County large animal shelter housed more than 700 evacuated animals, from horses to chickens to every livestock animal between.
As coordinator of the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), Veterinary Emergency Response Team (VERT), part of my job was to bring veterinary volunteers to aid in the disaster relief efforts. The veterinary contingent at the fairgrounds included the UC Davis team, the Northern California Association of Equine Practitioners, and private volunteer practitioners. The North Valley Animal Disaster Group managed the shelter itself. The number and variety of animals in need of care was overwhelming, but behind the scenes was a resilient and dedicated group of people, all striving each day to build and run a fully functioning field veterinary hospital and animal shelter, all while a record-breaking fire burned more than 150,000 acres of Northern California.
Animals arrived at our Butte County large animal evacuation shelter via all means of transport. Some owners were able to evacuate with their animals and bring them to the shelter themselves, while those who didn’t have quick access to a trailer called for help. The latter group used a North Valley Animal Disaster Group phone center hotline to give the location of their pets left behind, Then, contracted agencies with the county or volunteers with trailers picked up animals and transported them to the shelter. Unfortunately, animals located behind road blocks proved too difficult and dangerous to move until the area was deemed safe.
When you hear about fire injuries, the first ailment that comes to mind is a burn, and we did see our share of burned animals. These ranged from mild burns on the legs and face to more severe burns of large portions of the body. Veterinary medicine has made great advances in equine burn care; following these guidelines, we treated horses with topical medications including silver sulfadiazine or manuka honey, then wrapped with layers of padding and adhesive bandages.
But the smoke and debris created additional health issues, as well. A number of horses required eye treatment for ailments ranging from full corneal ulcerations to mild discharge. We treated them with pain medications, eye washes, and topical antibiotics. Thankfully, we didn’t see major respiratory issues, except for minor nasal discharge.
One of the main veterinary concerns, as with any stressful event and abrupt change in environment and feed, was that many of the horses exhibited signs of colic. This proved to be a sizable time and resource commitment. First, animals needed frequent monitoring, so a dedicated, detail-focused group of volunteers made sure each animal was observed multiple times throughout the day to see if colic signs began or worsened. Second, patients needed appropriate treatments, including pain management and evacuation of stomach contents—“tubing” them to remove what was in their stomachs. Of course, there is a limit to how much medical intervention was possible at the shelter and a few animals were referred to UC Davis Veterinary Teaching Hospital for more intensive care. But most of the colic cases resolved with minimal medical intervention and successfully settled into their temporary home.
Other injuries involved trauma and wound care. Some frightened animals outside or in trailers injured themselves, as evidenced by various punctures and lacerations on some patients. Additionally, as with any varied group of horses, there were those that required ongoing treatment and observation for chronic diseases and injuries such as pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID, or equine Cushing’s disease) and navicular syndrome.
Every horse treated at the Butte County large animal shelter has recovered from their injuries. It was a tremendous feat only made possible by a group of incredible veterinarians, vet techs, vet students, assistants, and volunteers. Three weeks after the start of the evacuations, only about 15 horses remained at the shelter. Most have gone to live with their owners or temporary caretakers. Those who were lucky returned to their homes either lightly burned or untouched, while those who weren’t have found temporary accommodation with friends, family, and those who have opened their homes, or pastures, to those in need.
Working at the Butte County large animal shelter opened my eyes to the power of community. Every person looked out for those working around them and the UC Davis team worked to remind each other of self-care in the face of adversity. In retrospect, this makeshift community was necessary, because the work was so emotionally taxing. We interacted daily not only with sick and injured animals but also with our community in Butte County that lost so much. Every volunteer had the distinct opportunity to help where help was desperately needed, and they have left with a feeling of great accomplishment at having improved the health of affected animals, and therefore the people connected to them, during this difficult time.
I couldn’t be more impressed with my colleagues as they have shown dedication, empathy, and tireless enthusiasm over the entire duration of our two weeks in Butte County. As a student, I truly believe that this formative experience allowed me to grow as a veterinarian, and human being. And through this tragedy we have learned a tremendous amount and will be able to apply all we learned to future communities in need who will face the growing number of disasters in our world.