“I thought Paradise was bad. This is worse.”
Mary Whitlock, DVM, gives talks about her harrowing experiences volunteering with animal rescue teams after the devastating wildfire that nearly wiped the town of Paradise, California, off the map in 2018. The Camp Fire, as it’s known, destroyed 95% of the buildings, displaced nearly 27,000 residents, and killed 85 people. It remains the most destructive and deadly wildfire in California history.
“At the end of my program, I always say, ‘These were the nine hardest days of my life.’” She pauses. “I’ll have to modify that now. Paradise was just preparing me for this.”
She’s referring to the Holiday Farm Fire east of Springfield, Oregon, which has burned close to 175,000 acres of Willamette National Forest. Springfield is part of the Eugene/Springfield metropolitan area in Lane County, which is Whitlock’s home base. As a key member of the Lane County Animals in Disasters (LCAID) Task Force, Whitlock’s been in the thick of things since the fire broke out on September 6.
Whitlock spent 27 years in private practice in Junction City, Oregon, about 15 miles north of Eugene. Since selling the practice 7 years ago, she’s been working as a relief veterinarian at area hospitals, which she says is “a great way to keep being a veterinarian” without the hassle of running a business, as well as volunteering with LCAID.
Whitlock says LCAID was borne of the Pet Safety and Protection Act of 2009, which was itself a response to the devastating failures encountered by disaster first responders during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Many pet owners in New Orleans refused to evacuate without their pets. As there were no systems in place to deal with evacuated pets at the time, many of those pet owners chose to stay behind. And many died along with their pets rather than leave them.
Whitlock and her colleague, Kathy Snell, DVM, were instrumental in drawing up Lane County’s Response Plan for Animals in Disaster. They also arranged for the county to buy a disaster-response trailer to hold veterinary medical supplies that could be deployed to evacuation and shelter areas in times of disaster.
But COVID screwed that up, too.
Thanks to the Pet Safety and Protection Act, when the Red Cross sets up a human-evacuation shelter these days, an animal shelter is set up nearby to care for the evacuees’ pets. But in Eugene/Springfield, as in most places, social distancing protocols made setting up rows of cots in the local high school gym impractical. During the pandemic, evacuees are sent to hotels. And in most cases, they’re allowed to take their pets.
As a result, there wasn’t any need to set up small-animal shelters, and the disaster-response trailer is parked outside the Greenhill Humane Society, where LCAID is running small-animal response efforts and dispensing donated supplies wherever they’re needed, including at the county fairgrounds, the site of Lane County’s temporary large-animal shelter.
Although both veterinarians, Whitlock and Snell spend most of their time doing administrative work, it’s vital work, and nothing else would get done without it: “We set up the logistics, the shelters, scheduling volunteer veterinarians, and running supplies to evacuation areas.”
Two days into Whitlock’s response efforts, she had to run donated supplies to an evacuation site and was stunned by what she saw. “Hundreds of evacuees lining up to collect food, water, clothing—everything they couldn’t bring with them when they left their homes. I’d never seen anything like it,” she said. “Vehicles stretched for blocks, coming and going, people picking up supplies and others donating them. And none of the evacuees even knew whether they still had a home to go back to.”
NEWStat spoke with her on her twelfth straight day of working. She figures she’d logged around 140 hours before she lost track. “We were all very tired.”
And over all their efforts loomed the shadow of the pandemic: “We have to keep in mind at all times that it’s going on around us,” she says. “While working in the shelter, in the triage center, at the fairgrounds, in the command center in Springfield; wherever we’re interacting with people, whether they’re donating supplies, treating injured animals, or doing inventory management, we must keep everyone safe.”
It rained the day before our interview. Not enough to put out the wildfires, but enough to settle the ash and particulates and make the air a little easier to breathe. “Thank God the rains came and cleared our horrible, horrible, horrible air,” Whitlock said. But while people could literally breathe easier, the rain made it harder on people working search and rescue. The ground in the burned areas is slippery and unstable. Dead trees fall randomly. “It’s not safe.”
Whitlock, not being part of the search-and-rescue team that is primarily concerned with finding human survivors or victims, is not considered essential personnel and is not allowed into the burned areas.
When animal-response teams are eventually allowed in, they don’t hold out much hope of finding many pets still alive. “Our goal is to locate the animals, take a picture of them so we can later geolocate where they were.” At that point, she says, their job becomes one of reuniting owners with their pets’ remains to bring them closure. “In a lot of cases, rescue consists of bringing back remains.”
She and Snell hope to become more involved with that when it’s safe to go up. “To make sure that part of it, the disposition of remains, is handled very respectfully.”
Unfortunately, that could be a while.
As of Wednesday, September 23, the Holiday Farm Fire was at 35% containment. Exhausted firefighters and disaster responders like Whitlock have a ways to go; the fire’s estimated full containment date is October 29.
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