Swift Southern California wildfires prove deadly

At least 75 horses die as flames overtake barns near Los Angeles, San Diego
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Dr. Virginia Frauenthal was excited to move into her first house Dec. 1, 2017. She had been medical director at VCA Care Specialty and Emergency Animal Hospital in Santa Barbara, California, for two years. But the excitement turned to panic as the Thomas Fire burned closer and closer. On Dec. 10, the evacuation warning came for her home. Then, on Dec. 16, she not only received mandatory evacuation orders for her home but also an evacuation warning for the hospital. Staff decided to evacuate the hospital as the fire approached dangerously close. They scrambled, with veterinary technicians, doctors, and administrators showing up to take animals to another VCA clinic after calling each client. "You could see flames and smoke coming down the hill. The fire was a real threat and danger," Dr. Frauenthal said. "It was a weird experience to turn off the oxygen tanks and close the doors, since we’re a 24-hour facility. Evacuating was a very stressful experience."

Dr. David M. Ramey worked at Pierce College, one of the main evacuation centers in the Woodland Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, which has a large equestrian facility that the Los Angeles Department of Animal Care and Control opens in times of disaster. He estimates 120 horses came. One of the worst fire victims he saw was Reuben, a horse exposed to extreme heat who had to be euthanized a few weeks later because of extensive internal injuries and his inability to walk anymore. The Los Angeles County Animal Care Foundation paid for Reuben’s medical treatment. (Courtesy of Dr. David M. Ramey)

In 2017, California saw its worst fire season ever as multiple large wildfires burned uncontrollably across the state for days.

In October, seven wildfires swept across Northern California, killing at least 44 people and destroying nearly 9,000 homes and other buildings. The fires weren’t fully contained until the end of October (see JAVMA, Nov. 15, 2017).

That was followed by multiple wildfires that erupted in early December in Southern California. Santa Ana winds moved the fires so quickly and so unpredictably that those fleeing had only minutes to leave. In some cases, horse owners said they had to choose between saving themselves and their animals. The fires endured, creating the longest period of red-flag warnings ever recorded in California. In fact, a federal state of emergency was declared Dec. 8.

Thomas Fire

The Thomas Fire started when a brush fire exploded Dec. 4 into a fierce wildfire burning over 440 square miles, from Santa Paula to the hills above Santa Barbara and eastward into the Los Padres National Forest.

"It looked like an apocalypse," Dr. Frauenthal said. The sky, at one point, was black-grey, and the sun shining through it was in a "weird orange" color. The air quality continued to worsen, forcing residents to don air masks.

Dr. Frauenthal said some staff evacuated around when the fire started, and more left Dec. 12 after the hospital gave all employees who felt threatened the option to evacuate and still be compensated for their efforts.

On one day during the crisis, the hospital had taken in 15 cats and five dogs. However, by the time the hospital closed Dec. 16, most owners had picked up their pets. In all, the Santa Barbara hospital evacuated four patients—two in stable condition and discharged that day to their owners. Another owner opted to hospitalize a pet at another facility, and a dog with a neurologic condition was taken by staff to the other VCA hospital.

Dr. Virginia Frauenthal, medical director at VCA Care Specialty and Emergency Animal Hospital in Santa Barbara, California, not only had to help evacuate the hospital but also evacuated her home Dec. 16, 2017, when the Thomas Fire neared. "When alerts came out, it was usually 2 or 5 in the morning. You’d get evacuation orders and were supposed to get out in an hour. That was a very stressful situation to have to get out in the middle of the night," Dr. Frauenthal said. "I had only lived there a week. I was simultaneously unpacking and packing up stuff." (Courtesy of Dr. Virginia Frauenthal)

When the hospital reopened Dec. 19, things didn’t get any easier. Dr. Frauenthal worked 14-hour shifts for seven days straight to cover for about half the staffing capacity, including on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. She saw several animals with respiratory disease that required oxygen because of the poor air quality. Her home remained intact, and she returned to it 11 days later.

The fire was mostly contained by the end of December and was not expected to grow. In all, the fire burned through more than 1,060 homes and other structures, and thousands of people were evacuated. The Thomas Fire has since been declared the single largest wildfire in California history, spanning more than 281,000 acres, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Creek and Rye fires

The Los Angeles Department of Animal Care and Control, the primary emergency responder for animals in the area, housed 201 animals during area fires in December, mainly horses but also llamas and donkeys as well as dogs and cats. Many of these animals were housed at the department’s emergency sheltering location at Pierce College.

The Creek and Rye fires proved to be among the most frightening and saddening fires DACC staff has seen, according to an agency press release. It said many horses lost their lives because of the fast-moving fires, owner failure to evacuate in time, and inability to reach the horses in time.

In one incident Dec. 4 in the Creek Fire, 29 horses died at Rancho Padilla in Sylmar, a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles.

DACC officers arrived that morning to find the barn burning, with some areas of the roof collapsing, and to hear horses in distress. They quickly retrieved two horses and a puppy, then returned to the burning barn and rescued an additional four horses before the flames blocked their entry, according to an agency press release.

Three major fires impacted the Los Angeles and San Diego regions: the Thomas, Creek, and Lilac fires. Air quality was a big issue in some affected areas. Dr. Frauenthal said it rained ash for more than a week, causing everyone to wear masks when outside. In fact, N95 respirator masks sold out. (Courtesy of Dr. Virginia Frauenthal)

Subsequent DACC officer teams broke the padlocks of 10 stalls to rescue the horses, but the barn became inaccessible from the fire and the collapsing roof. The officers transported the horses they were able to get to incident command and returned some of the horses to their concerned owners. The remaining horses were transported to Pierce College.

Dr. David W. Ramey, one of the private practice veterinarians the DACC relied on to provide veterinary care to injured horses, was based at Pierce College. He treated three horses from the Rancho Padilla fire, two of which were exposed to extreme heat. The third was discharged within days.

One of those horses, Chaparra, suffered the most severe burn injuries. She lost most of her hair, including her eyelashes, and had severe corneal ulceration. Dr. Ramey said she was sloughing large amounts of skin from the right side of her body and wasn’t eating or defecating.

While the external injuries were obvious, the internal injuries were not. "Red blood cells popped like balloons, and the urine was black from the pigment. A few days after that, skin started to peel," Dr. Ramey said. Chaparra was euthanized within a few days. Another horse, Reuben, who also was exposed to extreme heat, seemed to recover at first. He was eating and willing to move around, Dr. Ramey said, but 10 days after exposure to the extreme heat, things started to go south. Reuben was laminitic and his hoof walls began to separate from underlying structures, causing extreme pain; the horse couldn’t walk anymore. Reuben was euthanized at the end of December.

"With burned horses, you don’t know the extent of the damage. You treat them and think maybe things are going well, but the next day, you find out another problem crops up. You devote time, effort, and energy—because you don’t always get the opportunity to save a life—for a while, feeling like you’re going to really make a difference, and it’s very empowering. But when it finally becomes apparent that the damage is too bad, it is very deflating," Dr. Ramey said. "The insidious nature of this is you don’t immediately know the extent of the damage. You can’t necessarily make an accurate assessment on Day One. Thermal damage to the skin may not show up until a week or two later, as a chunk of skin and muscle coming off the side of his face, for example. And there was no way to know how much damage was done to the horse’s feet, or if the subsequent laminitis was due to burns or complications from all of the trauma."

Lilac Fire

Another tragic equine incident happened Dec. 7 in northern San Diego County at the San Luis Rey Downs training center. The 500-stall facility for Thoroughbred racehorses had been evacuating, but as the Lilac Fire raced closer, filling the paddocks with smoke and setting palm trees ablaze, the horses began to panic, according to a Dec. 9 Los Angeles Times story.

December 2017 California fires (Source: California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection)

Some horses refused to leave their burning stables. Some got out only to run back in. Some made it to safety on the track, only to collapse and die. The California Horse Racing Board confirmed that 46 horses died when the fire destroyed nearly half the barns at the center.

Mike Marten, a spokesman for the California Horse Racing Board, was quoted Dec. 8 as saying that the death toll at San Luis Rey Downs could rise. He said the Thoroughbred facility, located in Bonsall, accommodates 495 horses and that at least 450 were there when the fire struck. He added that a small number of horses escaped to the wilderness through a fence that was knocked down, and they hadn’t yet been located.

In all, officials said about 360 surviving horses from San Luis Rey Downs were moved to the Del Mar Fairgrounds, and some 850 horses evacuated during the fires were being stabled there.

Lessons learned

The DACC said in a Dec. 7 press release about the Rancho Padilla fire, "This event serves as a tragic reminder for those who keep horses to develop actionable evacuation plans to reduce loss and injury. Horse stalls should never be padlocked or otherwise made inaccessible. Early evacuations are key to ensuring these tragedies do not occur. The Department also encourages horse owners to microchip their horses for identification during emergencies, and to have alternative housing sites established in advance in case of evacuations."

Despite the many casualties, Dr. Ramey said that overall, most horses in the area were evacuated to safe places ahead of time. Other than the three horses from the Rancho Padilla fire, the ones he saw at Pierce College had a case of colic or minor scrapes at most. None of the horses he saw had apparent respiratory distress, nasal discharge, or respiratory congestion from smoke inhalation.

Overall, the response effort "worked out relatively well, given multiple jurisdictions and a lack of reliable sources of information—not to say it couldn’t be improved on," Dr. Ramey said. "If you have a big, hot, fast-moving fire, they’re unpredictable. They kill people and animals."

He said the LA County Department of Animal Care and Control had scheduled a meeting for the end of January to recap the disaster response efforts. Truthfully, he said, the fire was unlike any he or others in the area had ever seen. For example, the Ronald Reagan Freeway had always been considered a good barrier to fire spread, but even that didn’t hold.

"Who anticipates 80-mile-per-hour winds?" Dr. Ramey said. "Areas where there hadn’t been fires before had decades of brush lying there." ​

Related JAVMA content:

Fallout from fall California fires continues (Feb. 15, 2018)