How Veterinarians, Students, and Volunteers Saved Horses During a Deadly Wildfire

DVM student treating burned horse
DVM student Ashley Nola treating a horse for burns at the Butte Co fairgrounds.

Contributed by Hayley Dieckmann, Class of 2020 

Late last year, Northern California experienced the largest and deadliest wildfire in recent history. Butte County was on fire for 17 days. The Camp Fire killed at least 85 people and changed the lives of thousands more.

Countless more animals—including horses—were injured, traumatized, displaced, or killed by the fire. Those that survived needed care, even if their owners had evacuated the area. That’s where we came in.

Rescue workers, owners, and good Samaritans brought horses and livestock to the Butte County Fairgrounds for shelter and veterinary care. During the peak of the fire, the Butte County large animal shelter housed more than 700 evacuated animals, from horses to chickens to every livestock animal between.

As coordinator of the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), Veterinary Emergency Response Team (VERT), part of my job was to bring veterinary volunteers to aid in the disaster relief efforts. The veterinary contingent at the fairgrounds included the UC Davis team, the Northern California Association of Equine Practitioners, and private volunteer practitioners. The North Valley Animal Disaster Group managed the shelter itself. The number and variety of animals in need of care was overwhelming, but behind the scenes was a resilient and dedicated group of people, all striving each day to build and run a fully functioning field veterinary hospital and animal shelter, all while a record-breaking fire burned more than 150,000 acres of Northern California.

Animals arrived at our Butte County large animal evacuation shelter via all means of transport. Some owners were able to evacuate with their animals and bring them to the shelter themselves, while those who didn’t have quick access to a trailer called for help. The latter group used a North Valley Animal Disaster Group phone center hotline to give the location of their pets left behind, Then, contracted agencies with the county or volunteers with trailers picked up animals and transported them to the shelter. Unfortunately, animals located behind road blocks proved too difficult and dangerous to move until the area was deemed safe.

When you hear about fire injuries, the first ailment that comes to mind is a burn, and we did see our share of burned animals. These ranged from mild burns on the legs and face to more severe burns of large portions of the body. Veterinary medicine has made great advances in equine burn care; following these guidelines, we treated horses with topical medications including silver sulfadiazine or manuka honey, then wrapped with layers of padding and adhesive bandages.

But the smoke and debris created additional health issues, as well. A number of horses required eye treatment for ailments ranging from full corneal ulcerations to mild discharge. We treated them with pain medications, eye washes, and topical antibiotics. Thankfully, we didn’t see major respiratory issues, except for minor nasal discharge.

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