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November 15, 2020

Veterinarians evacuate, treat fire victims in Oregon

They describe recovery after fires burn through neighborhoods, destroying at least one clinic
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As wildfires neared Sept. 8, veterinarians and staff members with Southern Oregon Veterinary Specialty Center drove critical patients to another hospital 25 miles away.

Dr. Natasha Chmelir, an emergency and critical care veterinarian at the specialty center in Central Point, Oregon, said the staff tried to discharge all patients stable enough to go home or evacuate with their owners. The hospital’s emergency team carried five or six critical patients in kennels to Grants Pass, where Riverside Park Veterinary Clinic was closing for the evening but opening its doors to the evacuees.

Cat treated for burns
An unidentified cat treated for burns at Southern Oregon Veterinary Specialty Center (Courtesy of Dr. Natasha Chmelir)

“We collected intravenous medications, fluids, catheters, telemetry monitoring, small portable oxygen tanks and transported all of it with us,” she said. “This process took over an hour to get to that hospital safely.”

The team joined evacuation-related traffic along highways with small fires beside them, she said.

The critical patients briefly returned to the specialty hospital the following morning, and the hospital began receiving burn victims that day. Another fire broke out nearby in the afternoon, forcing a second evacuation, this time to Crater Animal Clinic a few miles north. Dr. Chmelir and her overnight veterinary team spent the night monitoring and giving supportive care to seven or eight cats with burns and about five other pets in critical condition.

The specialty hospital reopened the following morning.

“Upon returning to the hospital, it smelled of smoke indoors, causing many of us to have headaches and cough intermittently,” she said.

Dr. Glen Winters lost his practice, Phoenix Animal Hospital in Medford, Oregon, to the Sept. 8 fires. He had learned midway through that morning about a fire spreading in northern Ashland, three towns to the southeast.

About noon, he and staff members started calling pet owners to let them know the hospital was shutting down and evacuating, but planned to reschedule all appointments for the next day or week. Clients soon picked up all but two of the animals at the clinic: a dog and a tortoise.

High southern winds—unusual in their speed and direction for the time of year—propelled flames and embers from Ashland through Talent and Phoenix to where Dr. Winters practices in southern Medford. By then, he and his employees had evacuated with the last two animals.

“When I got into the car to pull away, I couldn’t see across the street because of the smoke,” Dr. Winters said. “And I could see a 20-foot wall of flame less than a quarter-mile away.”

At 6:30 p.m., his clinic security system sent him an alert about smoke in the building.

“At that point, I just had assumed that the building caught fire,” he said.

Recovery for cats, veterinary staff

In the days after the specialty hospital’s evacuations, police officers and other residents started bringing injured cats to the specialty center, none with microchips and some with singed fur where their collars had been. Most had some combination of second- or third-degree burns on their pads, nasal cavity burns, melted nails, smoke inhalation, heat-related corneal ulcers, and burned-away whiskers.

“The following week, even, I remember having a couple of cases still coming in from Good Samaritans finding these cats—which was pretty remarkable when you think about it—as they were walking around with these injuries and these burns,” Dr. Chmelir said. “But they were fighters, and they were the ones who survived.”

Craig Lassen, director of the specialty hospital, said unidentified cats continued arriving into early October, including two that arrived Oct. 8 after traveling several hours north from near Redding, California. He estimated about 50 unidentified cats had been brought in over the past month, and the clinic may have seen an unidentified dog or two.

Lassen said many of the cats likely were community cats, fed by people but unowned. Others may have lived outdoors and would have been harder to catch and evacuate than dogs.

As rescuers scoured neighborhoods, they found scores of cats displaced, burned, and often disabled, Lassen said. The specialty center’s doctors treated the cats until they were well enough for minor care at other clinics that volunteered to help or, for those in good condition, could be moved to foster homes or county animal shelters.

Central Point is in Jackson County, where in September, emergency management authorities issued a series of evacuation warnings and orders as large fires spread near and into southern Oregon communities.

On Sept. 11, county officials provided video from an aerial survey, which showed blackened ground spread around gray and white remains of neighborhoods. In video from a Sept. 23 press conference, county Emergency Operations Center director John Vial said the fires had damaged large areas of the communities of Phoenix, Talent, and others between, destroying about 2,600 residential buildings and 180 commercial ones.

“I have been amazed and impressed at the response of this community,” Vial said. “I have been amazed at how people have come together, people have been gracious, and people have looked for opportunities to help.”

In the three weeks after the fire at Dr. Winters’ hospital, his employees came to his house and worked from his home office to create lists of inventory lost, find prices for replacements, contact vendors, and assemble information for insurance claims. He and his wife, Dr. Kimberly Winters, are paying all their 15 employees out of pocket as they work to reopen in a temporary site, which Dr. Winters said could happen by Dec. 1.

Fire damage extensive in Western U.S.

Statewide, the Oregon Office of Emergency Management reported Oct. 5 that nine people had died in the wildfires since August, three remained missing, and 2,100 stayed in shelters. The fires burned about 1 million acres, destroying about 3,100 homes and 1,400 other structures. Nine fires remained active but were mostly contained.

California, Oregon, and Washington state battled massive fires starting in August, and the fires in California alone killed 31 people and spread across a record-breaking 4 million acres. Twenty-three major wildfires remained active in California in early October.

Dr. Chmelir recommends that veterinarians in areas at risk for wildfires develop evacuation plans. Natural disasters catch you off guard, she said, as she learned last year when a brush fire jumped across a road and onto hospital property, forcing evacuation while one animal was in surgery.

This year, she said, the hospital team felt more prepared.

All of Dr. Winters’ employees and patients escaped safely, he said. But the fire has been traumatic, and some had lost valuables left in the clinic.

“I, personally, left two bulletin boards of my children’s artwork for me hanging on the wall, and I regret the most not taking that stuff,” he said.

He plans to rebuild, a process that he expects will take one or two years because of the processes to secure permits and begin construction. Rebuilding also amounts to starting over since, over six years, he expanded his hospital and bought more equipment while his insurance coverage limits remained the same.

But people in the community have offered overwhelming support, he said. Clients made dog beds and blankets or dropped off towels. A local Subaru dealer gave $500, and a BMW dealer gave office supplies.

“I had clients who lost their home, and they were offering me money to rebuild,” Dr. Winters said. “And I said, ‘I don’t want your money; I want you guys to worry about yourselves.’”


The AVMA provides information about veterinarians’ roles in disaster preparedness and response and more. A webinar on “Disaster and business continuity planning” is available on AVMA Axon  under “Policy and Practice.”

The American Veterinary Medical Foundation provides disaster reimbursement grants to AVMA members who deliver emergency medical care and temporary boarding to animal victims of disasters.