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Fires in the West rage on: Evacuations, lost pets, and curbside in the smoke

“It’s like breathing sandpaper,” said Mark McConnell, BVMS, MRCVS, past president of AAHA (2017–2018), on what it’s like working curbside at hospitals in Oregon while wildfires run rampant across much of the state.

McConnell, chief medical officer of the Lakefield Veterinary Group, which owns several AAHA-accredited hospitals in Oregon, including Emergency Veterinary Hospital (EVH) in Springfield, says it’s hard to overstate how bad things are in the state right now. “Whole communities are no longer in existence,” he told NEWStat. “Whole towns are no longer standing.”

Springfield is feeling the effects of the Holiday Farm fire, a 170,000-acre conflagration that’s only 8% contained. According to McConnell, a quarter of Oregon’s 4.2 million population are either evacuated or preparing to evacuate should the need arise.

McConnell reports that the fires are spreading so quickly that many people are having to evacuate without having time to collect their pets. He recalled a case the other night where a family, in the scramble to escape the flames, lost their dog.

The dog was found, frightened but safe, and brought to EVH, where he was reunited with the family, who had lost everything else they owned to the fire.

But the sprawling, suffocating smoke is something all its own.

While the worst effects of the Oregon wildfires are the direct ones—8 people dead, 12 more missing, 1,616 homes destroyed, and close to a million acres burned as of Wednesday—the secondary effects of pollutants such as ash, smoke, debris, and particulates are their own kind of awful. The smoke alone—a mixture of gases and fine particles from burning vegetation, building materials, and anything else that’s caught fire—can make you physically sick. Short-term exposure can have immediate health effects that include labored breathing, headaches, and chest pain.

Long-term exposure can lead to lung disorders, heart attacks, and strokes—and can be lethal.

And hospital staff all along the West Coast continue to work curbside despite the dangers.

Down the coast in Monterey, California, Gregory Marsolais, DVM, MS, DACVS, founder of Pet Specialists of Monterey, told NEWStat last week that the air was so thick with smoke and debris, all employees working curbside were wearing N95 masks in order to breathe.

N95 masks are in short supply at EVH, as they seem to be in most places. Max Rinaldi, DVM, medical director at EVH, says his hospital has only a handful of N95 masks, and the staff tries to make sure those go to employees working curbside who are most sensitive to the smoke. Several were so overcome by the poor air quality that they went home sick.

“The biggest problem we’ve run into is that the prevailing wind blows directly at our front door,” Rinaldi told NEWStat. “So any time you open it, it’s funneling the smoke straight into the hospital.”

Animals are feeling the effects, too. Rinaldi said a couple of cats who were found wandering in burned areas were brought in last weekend. Both were suffering from smoke inhalation. Other than that, he said, they were in surprisingly good shape: “Kind of scorched and singed but no external wounds.” Both were given oxygen to keep pneumonia at bay and treated for respiratory complications caused by heat and smoke.

No one has come forward to claim either cat.

"Neither had a chip or a collar,” Rinaldi said. “So once they’re safe, they’re going to the [local] shelter. They’re operating around the clock looking for owners separated from their pets.”

Meanwhile, Rinaldi said, people in the area are doing their best to stay calm and stay safe while “checking the news every five minutes to see if they’re going to be evacuated.” When the staff’s not working, there’s not much to do but hunker down and wait.

“You can’t go anywhere indoors because of COVID, and you can’t go anywhere outdoors because of smoke," Rinaldi said. The stress is overwhelming.

Photo credit: © Gettyimages/hapabapa