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'THIS IS WHY WE DO THIS': Vet team on the fire line; UC Davis know-how helps safeguard hundreds of pets

By Dave Jones on July 18, 2008 in University News

John Madigan snapped the photo with his new iPhone, capturing an instant in time that said very plainly: "This is why we do this."

The image shows a man clutching his scared golden retriever puppy to his chest on their way out of an emergency shelter where UC Davis veterinary personnel had helped take care of hundreds of animals during recent wildfires in Butte County.

The unidentified man and his pup had been evacuees from the rural community of Concow. The man found sanctuary at a people shelter, his dog at an animal shelter -- both on the campus of Spring Valley Elementary School, near the north tip of Lake Oroville.

Now they were going home, happy owner and his healthy dog -- with the dog's good health attributable in part to UC Davis.

VERT heads for Oroville

A dry-lightning storm sparked the fires in the early afternoon of June 21. The state Office of Emergency Services summoned Madigan's Veterinary Emergency Response Team on June 26; so, by the time they arrived on June 27, dozens of dogs, cats and other animals had been at the shelter for six days.

The team's first order of business: immunizations. "If it's been more than 72 hours in a shelter setting like that, immunizations are a good idea," Madigan said.

Ordering immunizations is one thing. Having the vets and technicians and vaccine and syringes to do the job is another. Which is where the School of Veterinary Medicine came in.

"It was using our resources to get that stuff up to them," said Matt Cuneo, a second-year veterinary student who accompanied Madigan to Butte County that first day.

Indeed, Madigan and the School of Veterinary Medicine have the resources. Back on campus, his assistant, Delaina Matz, swung into action, enlisting vet school personnel and contacting pharmaceutical representatives. That was on Friday, June 27. The mass immunization project was scheduled for Sunday, June 29, and by then Madigan and Matz had secured enough volunteers and vaccine to care for as many as 2,000 dogs and cats.

'Kind of a Noah's Ark'

The shelter already had filled with 300 animals: a couple hundred cats, more than a hundred dogs, plus horses, chickens, goats, rabbits, even a few pigs -- "kind of a Noah's Ark," Madigan said. Fire officials advised that 300 to 500 more critters could be coming, if the flames turned the wrong way and if another round of dry lightning came in, as expected.

Fortunately, the fires did not turn toward the school, and the dry lightning fizzled out. Conditions improved so much that officials allowed people to return to their homes.

"A lot of happy people are coming to get their pets," Madigan told Dateline via his iPhone from Butte County on June 30. Among those reunited: the golden retriever puppy and his owner, a widower who lived alone with his dog, according to Madigan.

"Pets are part of the family," Madigan said the next day during an interview in his office at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital's large animal clinic, where he is associate director.

"At the School of Veterinary Medicine, we've always known about the special bond between people and animals," he said. "But Hurricane Katrina demonstrated to everyone that people will not evacuate their homes if they can't take their pets with them."

Which is why authorities pour nearly as much effort into rescuing animals as people. "You cannot have an effective human evacuation without including animals," Madigan said.

Reinvigorating local rescuers

During the fires that became known as the Butte lightning complex, the North Valley Animal Disaster Group took charge of animal welfare, setting up the Spring Valley shelter. This occurred just days after the rescue group finished a grueling stretch on the Humboldt fire elsewhere in Butte County. That fire destroyed at least 74 homes as it tore through 23,000 acres around Paradise and forced the evacuation of a third of the town's 26,000 residents -- and their pets.

Needless to say, the rescue group was tired and in need of help.

Enter UC Davis' Veterinary Emergency Response Team. The first to arrive were Madigan, Cuneo, and staff members Scott Barber and Tracey Stevens-Martin from the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital.

"We didn't replace the North Valley Animal Disaster Group," Madigan said. "We worked with them to formulate a plan for what they needed, and we helped them get it. We reinvigorated their unit."

In the supply category, they needed a lot: tents to provide shade for dozens of kennels and cages, dog and cat food, vaccine and volunteers.

Fire commanders "know where to get firetrucks and firefighters, but not veterinarians and veterinary medicine and other animal supplies," Madigan said. "We facilitated that."

In other words, the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine has connections. Or, as Stevens-Martin put it: "You gotta know who's who in the zoo."

Among the UC Davis veterinarians who responded was Barbara Jones, senior resident in the Shelter Care Program. She is the one who ordered the immunization program at Spring Valley.

Shelter shuts down, then reopens

In the end, there was no mass immunization, because the fire danger abated and the shelter closed down on June 29. Remaining animals were transferred to Oroville, where the UC Davis team helped set up a new shelter at Las Plumas High School.

For a command center, the shelter used a fifth-wheel trailer donated by a UC Davis alumna, Barbara Johnson of Napa. She had met Madigan and Matz at a recent animal emergency training conference, and she called them to see if they could use her trailer in Butte County.

The Las Plumas High shelter closed down July 1, as most of the evacuees picked up their pets and returned home. Over the next week, firefighters nearly completed their containment lines around the Rim and Empire fires, holding them at 1,800 and 5,200 acres, respectively.

Then, the morning of July 8, easterly winds pushed the 9,600-acre Camp Fire toward Concow, and authorities issued an "immediate threat evacuation advisory." For some residents, it would be their second evacuation in just over two weeks.

People and pets were being housed again at Las Plumas High School, and by 10 a.m. some 50 pets had been checked in, Stevens-Martin said. She was in telephone contact with the emergency operations center, helping round up volunteers for the animal shelter.

Related story: Butte County keeps dogs and cats in close proximity to their owners

Media contact(s)

Dave Jones, Dateline, 530-752-6556,