Spring 2019

Paradise Burning

A veterinarian tells of the long, smoke-filled hours caring for animals after last year’s harrowing wildfires in California.

By Deborah Thomson, V12

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Photo: AP Images

On the night of November 17, I said goodbye to my husband and cat in Berkeley, California, and drove three hours up to the area of Paradise. The infamous Camp Fire had been raging for nine days, its smoke traveling over 170 miles to the Bay Area. More than a million people were breathing the thickened air, and I was headed to the source.

I was deployed by the California Veterinary Medical Reserve Corps (CAVMRC), a group of veterinary volunteers who help out during state emergencies. My friends thought I was crazy for putting myself in possible physical danger. After all, the fire had not yet been contained and the air quality was even worse near Paradise. I was more concerned with how much suffering I would see. In 2017, in Napa, I volunteered to assist wildfire victims and cared for cats, including one that had burns down to the bone. Those are images that cannot be unseen.

While packing my overnight bag, I asked myself, Will I have even more images like that in my mind after this trip? It didn’t matter. I had sworn an oath. I committed myself to help the voiceless in times of need. I had to go.

On the drive up, I wore my N95 industrial face mask because I did not trust my car’s air filter. It made me look alien. I saw other drivers passing me on the highway sporting similar disguises. It was a new world.

I arrived late at night at the Chico Municipal Airport, one of nine animal shelters that were staffed or routinely visited by CAVMRC volunteers. It encompassed a single terminal building (which we called “medical”) and was flanked by one administrative building (deemed “the cat sector”) and one airplane hangar. Hundreds of small animals and exotics occupied every possible room in all three buildings. All told, 313 veterinary volunteers—the largest deployment in CAVMRC history—were responsible for 2,700 animals throughout all nine sites.

At home, I work at a hospital with 60 people on staff, but that seemed minuscule compared to the mega airport shelter. I was assigned to be head vet in the cat sector, where I was responsible for treating 212 displaced and sick cats, as well as 82 exotic animals, including macaws, parakeets, finches, Amazon greys, cockatoos, cockatiels, rabbits, guinea pigs, gerbils, hamsters, rats, and a chinchilla. To keep such a chaotic environment as organized as possible, I held rounds every two hours for all the amazing cat-sector volunteers: up to six veterinarians and 12 technicians or assistants at a time, plus an intake volunteer as well as an animal-control officer.

My primary objective was to prevent any infectious disease from spreading, keep the stress level as low as possible among the animals (and volunteers), and to get any ailing patients more advanced care. If a cat developed signs of an upper respiratory infection (URI), I had to inform the owner (if found) and then shuttle the cat over to the URI-quarantined area located on the other side of the airport. When I found burns on a cat’s paws, I contacted the head veterinarian in the medical sector and made sure they had space and equipment to accept that cat right away.

“My primary objective was to prevent any infectious disease from spreading, keep the stress level as low as possible among the animals (and volunteers), and to get any ailing patients more advanced care.”

After approximately three weeks, all animals were moved from the Chico airport site to various other locations, including unused municipal buildings in Oroville, where I continued volunteering. Each day, I saw people come into the shelter to find their pets. Sometimes they found them. Sometimes they did not. I overheard one animal-control officer advise a group of disappointed Paradise residents that they should leave clothing at their burned-out properties so their pets might pick up their scent.

As you can imagine, the fire was a life-changing event. I saw so much, from people opening their homes to host faraway strangers and children creating encouraging posters, to volunteers driving 12 hours in one day to work a 10-hour shift and people finding their beloved yet slightly worn-out pets. I saw tears of sadness and tears of joy.

My 70-plus hours of volunteering were a powerful reminder that veterinarians are a force for good. We can improve both the health of animals and the wellbeing of their owners. And in Paradise, where they don’t have much left, at least they have each other.

Deborah Thomson, V12, is a small-animal clinician and a One Health educator in public schools in the Bay Area. Since caring for animal victims of the Camp Fire, she has been promoted to California Veterinary Medical Reserve Corps field coordinator for future state disasters.

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