California Wildfires
Disaster Preparedness Manual
Melissa J. Nixon, DVM

Presented at Wild West Veterinary Conference, October 1995

The 1988 49er wildfire in Nevada County is considered to be the prototype fire for all the California wild lands. Semi-rural areas with heavy brush and timber are at a particularly high risk. In 1994, at the end of a prolonged drought, the forest trees and the brush had a water content lower than kiln dried lumber. That year, sixteen fires burned in six Southern California counties. An estimated 167,000 acres had burned by the end of fire season. Northern counties suffered as well, with fires in Nevada, Sierra, and several other counties.

Evacuating animals, particularly large companion animals such as horses and llamas, is often complex. Veterinary disaster response groups need to work in coordination with other agencies such as California Department of Forestry, Office of Emergency Services, law enforcement, animal control, the emergency broadcast system, the news media, and an emergency communication network such as ham radio operators. Ideally, interaction with these agencies will start well before the fire season. Waiting until a disaster to get organized will cause greater conflict, confusion, and loss of animal life.

In wildfires, it is particularly important to understand the road block system. In Nevada County, a first level block allows residents of the neighborhood access if they can prove residency. Disaster response workers can enter as needed. At a second level block, residents will not be allowed in the area. At this point, rescue crews coordinate with the patrolmen who uphold the road block and the sheriffs who drive through the area looking for further evacuees. If a resident is staying behind due to non-evacuated animals, the three groups coordinate to rescue the animals. At a third level block, no firefighters, emergency workers, or residents are allowed into the area due to extreme danger. Any animals who were not evacuated should be turned loose at the end of stage two. It is important to close gates and barn doors behind them so that animals do not reenter a familiar but dangerous area.

Advance planning should include creating a list of potential evacuation sites for both large and small animals. No single site is available at all times; alternatives need to be in locations not likely to be threatened by the same fire.

Public education should include the advice to evacuate as soon as possible; if necessary, to walk the animals out to the road block to meet evacuation trailer crews; and to ensure identification of their animals with permanent tattoos and microchips or temporary crayon and spray paint marks. Vaccinations should be updated before fire season if indicated. There will be many stressed animals in close quarters; viral outbreaks are a significant risk.

Prior training of animal disaster response volunteers increases safety and shortens response times. Wildfires can move at 60 miles per hour; the faster and more efficient the response, the more animal lives saved. Volunteers need to understand basic handling of any species they may be evacuating. Prearranged logistics for trailer and staging area workers facilitate the whole effort. Each trailer rig carries a prepared kit of supplies such as lead ropes, capture poles, and leather gloves.

Veterinary teams should be prepared for smoke inhalation, burns, shock, colic, dehydration, and a variety of injuries. A stockpile of essential drugs, euthanasia solution, syringes, fluids, bandage materials and other supplies is wonderful. However, the drugs must be cycled through a clinic to ensure proper dating, stockpiles may be destroyed in the fire before they can be salvaged, and electrical power is often unavailable within the district surrounding the fire area.

A triage group assigns priority if too many patients needing treatment arrive simultaneously. Once necessary immediate veterinary treatment is concluded, the animal should receive staging area identification that indicates the area it came from, owner if known, and evidence of pre-identification such as microchips, brands, tattoos, crayon or paint symbols.

Small and large animal feeds are generally donated by local stores and veterinary suppliers. All animals should receive mild diets until they are reunited with their owners. With large animals, avoid alfalfa and grain; feed oat or grass hay and keep bran on hand. Small animals should be fed adult formulated products without excessive fat or protein.

Veterinarians involved with the evacuation facilities should try to isolate potentially infectious animals, stallions and other unneutered males, and near term pregnant females. Premature delivery is likely with the stress of evacuation. Barn mates and housemate pets are significantly less stressed when they can be housed together. Waste management, disposal of carcasses, and disinfection of the facilities should be directed by a veterinarian.

In cooperation with other disaster agencies, a trained veterinary group will not only facilitate the evacuation of animals, but also the timely evacuations of the people who are too emotionally attached to the animals to leave until their beloved companions are also out safely.

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Melissa J. Nixon, DVM

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