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October 15, 2020

Teams shelter, treat animals in record fire season

Heat, windstorm, and lightning help spread blazes to millions of acres across the West
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Wildfires burned across the Western U.S. in August and September, killing at least 35 people and destroying more than 5,800 buildings.

Horse running by a stall
A horse runs by a stall Aug. 18 in Napa, California. (Photo by Josh Edelson/AFP)

At press time, tens of thousands of firefighters were battling massive fire complexes in California, Oregon, and Washington state and extinguishing dozens of new fires each day. Veterinarians on emergency response teams treated injured animals, helped find and evacuate those in danger, and monitored animals staying on pastures after their owners evacuated.

In California, the August and early September fires alone had burned 3 million acres, exceeding the record for all previous years with four months still left in the fire season. In Oregon, state authorities gave a half-million people notice to prepare for evacuation, and 40,000 had already fled.

At least 24 people died in California, eight in Oregon, and one in Washington state. In Oregon, another 22 people were missing at press time.

Colorado firefighters also were battling four large blazes, some of which were spreading with little to no containment. Other fires burned in Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

Climate change contributes to fires

Record-breaking heat over Labor Day weekend, thousands of lightning strikes, ample stands of dead trees, and a rare windstorm in Oregon’s Cascade foothills all contributed to blazes, according to information from state fire authorities and federal climate officials.

“The timing of the windstorm was unusual because those strong east winds usually occur in the dead of winter—not in early September,” information from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center states. “In addition to the heat, it is another example of the changing weather patterns that are being seen.”

By Sept. 11—only a few days into Oregon’s intense fires—about 2,500 pets, horses, and livestock were sheltered in county fairgrounds across the state, said Andrea Cantu-Schomus, spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Authorities in 16 counties had facilities sheltering animals, and two counties placed animals in foster homes.

Members of the Veterinary Emergency Response Team from the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine examined and treated animals in response to two fire complexes in August and September. And more than 90 volunteers from the Oregon State University Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine worked at the nearby Benton County Fairgrounds and a shelter in neighboring Linn County to examine and treat animals brought from two large fires to the northeast and southeast.

The American Red Cross reported Sept. 18 that the organization and its partners had provided 8,000 people emergency lodging, at hotels when possible and shelters when needed. People who evacuated with pets but were unable to get into hotel rooms found accommodations through the Red Cross’ partner organizations. Red Cross shelters had limited space for people to reduce the risk volunteers or residents will develop COVID-19.

Greta Gustafson, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross, said the organization was working with community partners to find shelters and resources for pets while maintaining safety for people in Red Cross shelters.

Sheltering animals in California

Dr. Lais Costa, coordinator for the Veterinary Emergency Response Team at UC-Davis, said her teams responded to the LNU Complex fire by working at emergency animal shelters that needed help, aiding animal control officers on search and rescue missions, and checking on animals remaining at homes and farms after their owners evacuated.

Horse rescue
A horse rescued during the LNU Complex wildfires in Northern California by the University of California-Davis Veterinary Emergency Response Team (Photos courtesy of UC Davis)

From Aug. 19-27, UC-Davis veterinarians, veterinary technicians, and veterinary students delivered hands-on examinations to about 500 animals in the field. Of those, 14 required minor treatments, such as injections or bandage changes, Dr. Costa said. About a dozen animals had burn injuries, including six chickens treated at shelters.

Another 35 were treated at the UC-Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, according to university data. Those animals were 11 alpacas, six horses, six goats, five sheep, three cats, three llamas, and one tortoise.

About a dozen donkeys and sheep were found dead, Dr. Costa said.

Most animals at their homes and emergency shelters appeared to be healthy, injury free, and not overly distressed, Dr. Costa said.

“Most of the animals were evacuated before the fire really had gotten to them,” she said.

UC-Davis team members deployed again Sept. 13 in response to the North Complex Fire north of Sacramento. By Sept. 15, they rescued, examined, or treated 650 animals in response to that fire as well as treated another 12 at the hospital.

Dr. Claudia Sonder, who is an equine veterinarian and president of the Napa County Animal Response Team in California, said Sept. 8 her organization had moved beyond the around-the-clock response from the first 72 hours of the LNU Complex fire and into a recovery phase, helping animal owners get feed, husbandry supplies, and veterinary care.

Veterinarian with burned cat treated at UC Davis
A burned cat treated at the UC-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital

Data provided by Dr. Sonder indicate two shelters from the Napa Valley Horseman’s Association and Valley Brook Equestrian Center housed 128 horses and 64 livestock over two weeks. The response team also transported eight animals to veterinary hospitals: three horses, two cats, a duck, a goat, and a pig.

Thirty-three horses required some veterinary care—15 for gastrointestinal issues, 12 for wounds, two for chronic lameness, two that received only sedatives, and one each for eye injury and hives.

The responders euthanized three horses for their severe burns and one for end-stage musculoskeletal disease, the data show.

Dr. Sonder said the volunteers also sent some large animals to UC-Davis for burns or thermal injuries to their eyes. But the most common ailments in large animal emergency shelters tended to be colic—which is exacerbated by stress, confinement, and new diets—followed by lacerations from transportation or flailing in the close confinement of a shelter.

As of Sept. 14, the California VMA’s California Veterinary Medical Reserve Corps stood ready to help if called.

Situation in Oregon and Washington

Two large fire complexes burned to the northeast and southeast of Corvallis, Oregon, where Oregon State University Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine is located. The university shut down classes and nonessential operations until further notice starting Sept. 9 because of the persistent smoke and ash, although the city remained beyond the areas with evacuation alerts.

As of Sept. 17, more than 110 Oregon State veterinarians, veterinary technicians, staff members, and veterinary students examined and cared for about 100 animals at the nearby Benton County Fairgrounds and about 700 at the Linn County Fairgrounds to the east. The Beachie Creek and Holiday Farm fires had extended into Linn County from the north and south, respectively.

Dr. Kate E. Schoenhals, a clinical instructor for Oregon State’s Rural Veterinary Practice program, said teams of veterinarians and veterinary students have worked to check the health of shelter animals, address any urgent medical needs, and complement the work of local veterinarians at the shelters. Most medical issues involved stress or injuries from transportation or housing.

“I still fear the animals that need us most are inaccessible, and we will be finding them in the days to come and/or when people are able to return home,” Dr. Schoenhals wrote in an email. “We are making every effort to be logistically, financially and emotionally prepared for this—hopefully unnecessarily so.”

Dr. Susan Tornquist, dean of the Oregon State veterinary college, said Sept. 11 that rescuers planned to move soon into canyons most likely to contain injured people and animals. She also expected to see more patients needing substantial medical care in coming days.

Some of the first animals evacuated to shelters arrived with lacerations, abrasions, and, among pigs, a few broken legs—all injuries likely inflicted during transportation, Dr. Tornquist said. She heard few reports of burns among animals in Benton and Linn counties. The university’s volunteers monitored animals for respiratory signs from smoke and ash or clinical signs of infectious disease spreading within the shelters.

“There’s a lot of efforts around the state to get veterinarians mobilized, but some veterinarians, their practices burned up,” Dr. Tornquist said. “Others are busy taking their normal cases.”

By Sept. 11, the Washington Department of Agriculture had not deployed its Reserve Veterinary Corps of volunteer veterinarians and veterinary technicians, and local authorities were handling animal sheltering, according to Dr. Minden L. Buswell, coordinator for the RVC.

Candace Joy, CEO of the Washington State VMA, heard early reports about livestock losses in the Cold Springs Canyon fire, which burned 189,000 acres in north-central Washington and remained 50% contained at press time. She said people in the area needed animal feed, salt, minerals, feed tubs, halters, lead ropes, and supplies to treat burns.

Active wildfires as of Sept. 15
Map: Active wildfires as of Sept. 15, 2020
Source: National Wildfire Coordinating Group (Enlarge)

Washington State University closed its campus Sept. 11-16 because air quality declined as smoke drifted in from Oregon and California. The Veterinary Teaching Hospital operated with only essential personnel.

COVID-19 alters plans

UC-Davis volunteers protected themselves from the pandemic by wearing N95 respirators during their deployments, Dr. Costa said. Her teams also reduced contact with one another by driving in separate cars, limiting carpooling to roommates.

Dr. Tornquist described similar measures for Oregon State’s teams.

“We have had no confirmed COVID cases in our college yet, and we really want to keep it that way,” she said.

Before the August fires, Dr. Costa said, county-level community animal response teams also helped animal owners plan how to reduce the COVID-19 risk to themselves and animal care volunteers by preparing to shelter animals in place during a fire and avoid bringing them to emergency shelters. Those owners learned to clear space for animals to retreat from flames and the worst of the smoke, which helped during the LNU Complex fire.

“Even though the structures are destroyed, a lot of those animals are not harmed,” she said.

Dr. Sonder said some emergency managers similarly tried to reduce the pandemic risk by helping people get into hotels with their pets rather than drop the animals off at shelters.

As for the shelters used for housing large animals, Dr. Sonder said operations across the state were short of volunteers because of the pandemic.

Community animal response teams largely rely on retirees who train in animal handling and evacuation and have time to respond to fires during the week. But those retirees also are at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

“We were down in the number of trained, skilled, good livestock handlers because there was a certain percentage of our volunteer group that just didn’t feel safe commingled with the general public,” Dr. Sonder said.

In the days after the fires started, Dr. Tornquist said people started bringing hay, feed, and water to nearby emergency animal shelters.

The American Veterinary Medical Foundation has provided $10,000 each to UC-Davis, Oregon State, and Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California, to aid their teams in providing veterinary emergency relief to animals affected by the western wildfires.

Dr. Sonder said two weeks of fire response in Northern California left her team exhausted. But firefighters continued suppressing small fires in the hills nearby and watching for flare-ups from the LNU Complex fire.

In a stretch of red flag days for fire risk, with low humidity and wind gusts reaching 45 mph, Dr. Sonder said her team remained ready.

“I’m staring out my window, and all of the leaves are blowing, and the trees are swaying,” she said. “It’s a scary environment with a high probability for another fire.”


The University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine is accepting donations for its Veterinary Emergency Response Team and for the animals cared for by the college.

Oregon State University Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine is accepting donations for its treatment and care of animals affected by the wildfires.

The American Veterinary Medical Foundation supports veterinarians who provide emergency care or need disaster relief.