When Wildfires Rage, Animals Can Be Saved

When Wildfires Rage, Animals Can Be Saved

Reading Time: 6 minutes

“Get Out! Evacuate … NOW!”  

These are words no one wants to hear. Still, many individuals in California and other western states have had to flee their homes when wildfires ravage the landscape, destroying forests, buildings, and property. Many humans and animals have suffered injuries and death amid relentless flames and smoke.   

“The emotional and physical ramifications of evacuating and enduring a wildfire are devastating,” says Dr. Lais Rosa Rodriques Costa, coordinator of VERT (Veterinary Emergency Response Team) and director of IAWTI (International Animal Welfare Training Initiative) at UC Davis. “It’s a frightful experience that stays etched in one’s mind forever.” 

Dr. Tara Urbano (middle) and veterinary students Grace Bloom (right) and Brookley Schamber (left) of the UC Davis Veterinary Emergency Response Team gather supplies to treat animals sheltered-in place in the hills above Vacaville burned by the LNU Complex fire.

Dr. Costa continues, “Our goal at VERT is to respond and help individuals when their animals are impacted by wildfires, providing teams of veterinarians, veterinary technicians, and highly trained veterinary students who travel a 150-mile radius from the University at Davis, California. We’re there to search and gather fleeing dogs, cats, horses, goats, pigs, poultry, and other barnyard animals. We respond and treat their injuries, deliver them to temporary emergency evacuation shelters where other team members monitor their care, and help reunite them with family members. We also transport those with more complicated and serious medical issues back to the university hospital for additional treatment and observation. There’s no cost to the public; we are a non-profit university organization that receives monetary and in-kind donations from individuals, businesses, and educational institutions. It’s truly an honor to be there in a time of need, providing care and hope for frightened and injured animals.” 

Veterinary student Julia Hills from the UC Davis Veterinary Emergency Response Team carries a goat found loose in a property burned at the North Complex fire. The Animal Search and Rescue Team dispatched by Butte County found the small herd of goats and brought them to safety.

VERT began in 1997, thanks to Dr. John Madigan, a UC Davis veterinary specialist in equine neonatology, who ventured beyond his field into the area of disaster medicine and large animal rescue work. Witnessing the devastation of the Northern California Yuba County floods that year, where helpless animals have swept away and drowned, spurred Dr. Madigan to do something to help. He saw a need to train and deploy veterinary teams out into the field to respond and treat animals displaced by disasters, inspiring other communities to work with local agencies involved in emergencies. 

Since that time, seasonal wildfires have kept the team on the move every year due to ongoing drought, thunderstorms, hot and windy weather conditions, downed electrical utility lines, and human error and arson. Each scenario contributes to millions of charred acres throughout the state and country. 

Male goat sheltered at the Emergency Livestock Shelter at Gridley Fairgrounds, was dehydrated and inappetent. Veterinary student Casie Lee from the UC Davis Veterinary Emergency Response Team administers fluids with vitamins to the goat.

In her experience with VERT, Dr. Costa recalls many situations involving goats, “One, in particular, was The Camp Fire in 2018, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California, burning over 153,336 acres and consuming practically everything in its path. Eighty-five people perished, and the towns of Paradise and Concow were almost destroyed, each losing 95% of their structures. More than 1,900 displaced farm animals and pets were treated at four temporary shelters in Butte County. We tended to 127 goats during 19 consecutive days of fieldwork, with 51 animals requiring medical treatment. Many of the goats experienced smoke inhalation, dehydration, and loss of appetite. Some had lacerations and eye injuries, while 18 suffered burns. Goats seem to be sturdy and robust, with a will to survive.  Fortunately, we had no fatalities.”  

Veterinarian Dr. Lais Costa and veterinary student Hayley Dieckmann from the UC Davis Veterinary Emergency Response Team examined several goats in the trailer upon arrival at the Emergency Livestock Shelter for the Camp Fire (2018) at Gridley Fairgrounds. One female goat had severe burns to the face, her eyes were closed shut and her nostrils were obstructed as she was struggling to get air into her lungs. Dr. Costa and Hayley cleared the nostrils and cleaned the eyes, provided topical eye treatment, administered fluid therapy and pain medication intravenously, and referred her to the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital in Davis. The owner, Jim Clark, met the rescuers at the fairgrounds and hardly recognized the severely burned goat, Feather, the herd queen and his favorite goat of his herd of 18 goats.
Feather, getting treatment at UC Davis after sustaining burns at the Camp Fire that burned 142,000 acres in 2018 and destroyed the city of Paradise.
Dr. Costa visited Feather while she was hospitalized at the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital in Davis. In this photo, after 20 days of treatment, Dr. Costa had tears of joy upon seeing how Feather has recovered.

Don’t Delay!     

Dr. Madigan and Costa both agree the best way to survive a wildfire and other disasters is to prepare long before danger finds its way to your doorstep. Here are some suggestions for getting started. 

Collect information, whether it’s in a three-ring binder or stored on a laptop or cellphone. Be familiar with the county, state, and national organizations that provide pertinent and current information. A few suggestions: 

Dr. Costa suggests one of the first things to research is finding out if your county has its own Community Animal Response Team (CART). The purpose of CART is to assist local animal response agencies during an emergency or disaster and provide ongoing training and education in animal disaster preparedness for first responders, veterinary professionals, and community volunteers trained in rescue and trauma care. 

Learn more about local agencies and organizations involved in animal care. If your country doesn’t have CART, contact other counties to learn more and possibly start something locally.   

Preparing one’s home and property is vital. It can seem overwhelming, but being proactive can undoubtedly save time and lives if and when disaster strikes. This can be a positive project that involves both family and neighbors. Get together to plan what you can do to keep everyone safe, including pets and barnyard animals. A few tips: 

Create a family emergency plan: Follow suggestions from Ready for Wildfire. Go! Evacuation Guide and other reliable resources with detailed preparedness checklists. 

Photos: Take current snapshots of family members and animals. This will help later, especially in identifying and reconnecting with displaced children, pets, and livestock. 

Microchip all animals: Wildfires can singe and burn collars and ear tags. While microchipping may seem exorbitant in cost, it’s a sure way of identifying your goats later.   

Stock a disaster kit: Plan a three-day supply for family members and animals with bottled water, non-perishable food, medications and supplies, medical records, first aid kit, flashlight, and batteries. Include extra collars, leashes, halters, ropes, etc., and keep it handy for easy access if and when evacuation is necessary. Keep vehicles filled with gas and trailers ready to load. If transporting animals is not possible, be sure they have identification and access to food and water, with the ability to seek shelter in a nearby area. Do not contain them. Many will hunker down by a stream or ravine. 

Emergency telephone numbers: Include your veterinarian, local emergency animal hospital, humane society, CART organization, equestrian centers, and county and state fairground facilities that will undoubtedly be utilized as temporary sheltering places for displaced animals. 

Hopefully, the ferocity of fire will stay far away, but like a mythical dragon spewing flames through the countryside, a raging inferno could turn in any direction, causing unimaginable havoc and heartache. Being prepared is the best defense. Be safe! 

For more information on VERT and IAWTI: www.iawti.vetmed.usdavis.edu  Emergency telephone number: (530) 784-VERT (784-8378) 

Originally published in the September/October 2021 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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