Animals in fires suffer from direct thermal injury as well as injuries from inhalation of chemicals and particulate debris. Certainly burns to the skin are the most obvious, but burns and damage to the respiratory tract from smoke inhalation should not be underestimated. If an animal is close enough to a fire to be burned, it has experienced respiratory injury. If wildfires involve human structures, the smoke plume may contain a mixture of concentrated toxins from incinerated plastics, petroleum products, and other chemicals. The particles can cause primary toxicity and pulmonary damage; external particles on the animal could transfer and cause problems in human handlers. Proper PPE is essential. Survivors of wildfires present with complications including dehydration, starvation, and traumatic injuries.
Most respiratory injuries and thermal burns will worsen in the 2-4 days after they are acquired. However, in some cases, it can take weeks for damage to fully manifest. Treatment is highly invasive, stressful, painful, and costly. Even with gold standard care many animals will not recover enough to be released. It is therefore necessary to have clear and rigorous triage protocols, especially when faced with large scale casualties.
Working closely with a veterinarian will be essential. Burns are painful and most cases require regulated, controlled pharmaceuticals for sedation and analgesia. In addition, debridement and wound care will need to be done under anesthesia in the initial stages. Animals suffering from smoke inhalation will need oxygen therapy, nebulization, ongoing radiographs, and other diagnostic testing. Work with your veterinarian to establish protocols for victims of wildfires before you need them. Quick evaluation, euthanasia, or stabilization will be vital for the welfare of the animal when it arrives in your facility.
Key aspects of triage and treatment for the rehabilitator.
Triage and Stabilization
Triage – “Burns covering 40-50% of the body have a high chance of mortality from sequelae (hypoproteinemia, sepsis, etc.) in domestic animals.”1
Burns may be classified as:
Superficial – Some layers of epidermis still intact
Deep – The dermis is exposed and possibly damaged
Deep burns require advanced treatment, and may not regrow hair or feathers.
Burns to the limbs, especially the pedal surfaces, which expose tendon/bone/joints or musculature are not compatible with release.
Mucous membranes – Bright, cherry red gums are indicative of carbon monoxide poisoning
Give oxygen therapy without delay.
Eyes – Conjunctivitis, due to smoke and particulates, is not uncommon. Lids and corneas may have thermal burns.
Flush the eyes with sterile aqueous drops
If you have the tools and training check for corneal ulcers.
Apply sterile ophthalmic treatments per species recommendations
No steroids should be applied
Ocular and respiratory damage may require euthanasia as a first option.
Restore Normothermia – Use room temperature isotonic crystalloids to restore normothermia in patients presenting with hyperthermia of fresh burns.
Be careful not to cause hypothermia in your patient.
Fluid Therapy – Promotes normothermia, tissue perfusion, and mitigates shock.
An IV or IO catheter may be necessary if burns cover areas used for SQ administration.
Analgesia – Immediately start species appropriate multimodal analgesia.
Oxygen therapy is the most important aspect of treating smoke inhalation.
Place the animal in an oxygen chamber.
A DIY oxygen chamber can be created quite cheaply, you can find many different plans online at various price points.
Oxygen chambers should have a thermometer and hygrometer inside to monitor and optimize temperature and humidity for your patient.
Ensure an opening for venting of carbon dioxide.
Chemical and bacterial pneumonia is common after smoke inhalation
Monitor with radiographs and/or bloodwork before, during, and after starting antibiotics.
Close confinement and respiratory distress exacerbate anxiety in a wild animal, which in turn makes those conditions even worse. Tranquilization and sedation may be necessary during treatment.
Rigorous hospital protocols must include quiet, calm, or even dark conditions with visual and auditory barriers between patients.
Once you have stabilized your patient you can begin wound management for the burns.
For Superficial burns
Clip any remaining hair. Do not remove feathers.
Lavage away soot or debris. (Several cleaning sessions may be required)
Apply a water based topical to the burn to increase moisture and prevent bacterial growth
Honey, Silver Sulfadiazine (SSD), etc.
Cover with a non-adherent (Telfa) or hydrogel bandage
For Deep burns
Consult with your veterinarian on a plan of action, anesthesia will be needed for debriding and cleaning.
In the interim apply a recommended topical to the wound and cover with a non-adherent bandage.
Be prepared for euthanasia; cleaning may reveal more damage than anticipated.
Most burns require daily bandage changes at minimum. Your veterinarian may have suggestions to decrease invasive treatments.
Monitor the burn. Remember, it may become worse over the next 2-4 days.
Maintaining cleanliness of the environment, the animal, and the ICU/container is absolutely essential. Biosecurity to protect the animal from human pathogens includes all appropriate PPE and sterile techniques where applicable.
Rehabilitation of wildfire victims takes much longer than normal rehabilitation
Likelihood for secondary problems is very high.
Pre-planning must include budgeting for greater than usual expenses and length of stay.
Superficial burns to the feet may be treatable and compatible with release, but it may take months to determine.
Singed feathers may require an entire molt cycle (up to 2 years in some species) if imping is not possible.
There may not be an appropriate release site in the aftermath of a large fire. Pre-planning should include this eventuality.
Long-term care should include options for supplemental feeding and water after release, especially if habitat is in recovery.
* This document does not replace information or recommendations from your veterinarian.
Macintire, Douglas K, et al. Manual of Small Animal Emergency and Critical Care Medicine. 2nd ed., John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2012.
If you would like more information on Fluid Therapy, Pain Management, or Wound Management consider taking the IWRC’s online courses on these subjects or read about them in Wildlife Rehabilitation: A Comprehensive Approach.
In areas affected by seasonal wildfires Covid-19 may cause even greater problems this year. In some regions Covid-19 has meant reduction or cessation of controlled burns to help mitigate fires1. Many rehabilitators are functioning with less volunteers, interns, and paid staff. This makes the need for personal preparation even more important. Use the following tips to help get yourself and/or your center ready for fire season.
Make or Review your Plan
Think through the steps to safely evacuate yourself, other people, and the wildlife in your care. If you are a home rehabber, don’t forget to include your pets/livestock.
Prioritize! Who/what needs to be evacuated first? What can you afford to leave behind?
Print out emergency protocols and review them with anyone that will be helping you in an emergency (partner, volunteers, etc.). Keep them in a binder or folder that is easily accessible.
Have emergency supplies in labeled containers that can easily be grabbed as you evacuate.This includes rehab supplies and supplies you and your family will need to survive.
Organize Emergency Information
Arrange to get emergency fire/weather alerts via phone or email.
If you use a phone tree or phone alert system for employees or volunteers make sure all numbers are up to date and people are willing/able to assist in an emergency.
Have multiple copies of licenses and permits in a fire safe, your evacuation kit, and stored digitally in the cloud.
If you lose your home or facility have a plan to transfer your patients to others.
Prepare press releases for local media to redirect rescuers to operational facilities.
Do a Facility Check
Clear brush and debris from around your facility, cut branches or limbs that overhang the roof or outdoor enclosures, ensure fire lines are clear.
Check smoke alarms and fire extinguishers.
Members can watch a webinar on fire extinguishers on the IWRC website.
Make a list of materials or equipment (i.e O2 tanks) that could be hazardous in a fire. Mark these devices on posted fire escape maps.
Ensure all equipment needed for evacuation (i.e. radios, animal carriers) is in working order.
Be prepared to shelter in place if evacuation is not required.
Know the Terrain
Know where fires are likely to come from.
Plan multiple evacuation routes.
Maintain up to date downloaded or paper maps; don’t rely on GPS/phones in an emergency.
Have a drill
Go through the motions of evacuation, simply walking through your plan will help.
Use every day experiences to prepare- know how long it takes to hook up a trailer, put together animal carriers, or catch up animals.
Adapt and improve your plan as you go (i.e. it takes too long to put carriers together? Use pillow cases instead!).
There are no words in any human vocabulary to describe the unimaginable horror as Australia burns. There are emotions, deep-stabbing pains of grief, voids and the vacancy of loss, infinite vacuum of pain, but no words. Not one living thing consumed by this hell brought on by human greed and antipathy deserves this fate. I write this now, as my Australian colleagues have much more important things to do. I hope to voice some of their feelings, but I do not speak for them; I understand there is no possibility that I can ever know the pain they suffer.
Looking on the holocaust from afar is devastating. In the field, you put your head down, go to work, do your best and continue on. The personal pain and suffering comes later. From far away, helpless horror and despair takes over. I cannot weep, I cannot rage, I am numb. The tearing rip through my soul does not yet sear.
I have been an Australiophile since I can remember. On my first trip, the first view from the airport on hitting the soil of this fabulous continent took my breath away. I knew I was there. The airport, the people, the industrial aspect –all familiar–but there were galahs, right there. And magpie larks and noisy miners and funny-looking pigeons with crests. I was entranced and filled with wonder! Of all the places in the world to burn to nothingness, the loss of Australia is unfathomable. It is a continent already at the brink, and so susceptible and fragile to anthropogenic damage. The impact on the unique and ancient flora and fauna is beyond the scope of human understanding. There is nowhere else in the world these ecosystems and organisms exist. The fires are needless, preventable squandering of irreplaceable, priceless treasures. The Earth has been violated and robbed. So fortunate have I been, to have visited for several extended tours in regions that now are visions of hell. I vividly remember that stunning individual bowerbird who is now surely ash and his lovely bower rendered to molecules. I remember the first wild koalas I saw, on Kangaroo Island, smelling of chewed eucalyptus, whose remains now intermingle with the charcoal of their favorite gum trees.
Reading the news that Kangaroo Island was aflame dropped the bottom out of my heart. I remember Australia: the first goanna, the first mallee trees; the first brown snake; the first bulldog ant; the first voracious leech; I remember them all and I know they are gone, dead in the most horrible fashion. Gone are half a billion wild animals. Half of all animals in Australia. Countless livestock and pets. Indigenous communities, lands and people. Death of entire ecosystems. Death of a continent. Death of biological record so important to evolution and systematics. Death of history.
Australia is the lesson to the world of what is to come. It is not a surprise. In the late 1970’s I was a fresh young college student working in ecological studies, some of which were predicting the course of human impact on global ecosystems. For 50 years humans have known what would happen, yet little was done to change the course of destruction. Governments have refused to acknowledge or implement policy to prevent disaster. Australia is the result. The rest of us are next.
As a wildlife veterinarian I know there is little to be done. Skills in euthanasia will be the most valuable at this point. Yet valiant and dedicated people give their all and rescue the animal fire victims, of which each individual will now be more important than ever to any remaining population. Wildlife rehabilitators are always heros; but this is a new level of courage.
How can we help? I know that everyone of you would jump on a plane tomorrow with a bag of supplies, but that is not what our friends and the burn victims need most.
The easiest answer is money – providing money so rehabilitators can buy what they need.
Morale support – we are there if needed. Spreading the word, for help and for prevention.
Educating ourselves and others about our local ecological regions and how humans fit into our world, and how deeply we damage it.
Advocating for change and awareness.
Being political and outspoken when needed.
Acknowledging the imminent climate crisis and preparing for the impact on our own turf.
Be the best wildlife rehabilitator you can be – in the future you will be needed more than ever!
Pat Latas, DVM
IWRC Board of Directors
Editor’s note: University of Sydney Ecology professor Chris Dickman is estimating 1 billion animals have been killed thus far by the record-breaking wildfires in Australia, as of Jan 8, 2020.
IF YOU CONTINUE TO SCROLL DOWN, YOU WILL SEE DISTURBING IMAGES OF WILDLIFE AFFECTED BY FIRE
On Jan 2, Facebook user Nick Ritar posted the following ten photos taken at Bastion Beach in Mallacoota, Victoria and said:
“Birds of Eastern Australia 2020
2. Rainbow Lorikeet
4. Top Knot Pigeon
6. New Holland Honeyeater
8. Gang-gang Cockatoo
10. Barn Owl
This is what climate change looks like.”
Editors note: specimen identifications were his, and frankly – there’s really no need to publicly speculate or correct them at this point in time.
Editors note: The act of compiling this post has been enough shake me to my core. Just like you, I feel utterly devastated and every image actually feels like someone is trying to pull my heart out of my chest. I have cried, wanted to punch someone (preferably a climate denier) and seriously considered screaming into a pillow as a release. But none of those things will help the people and animals that are suffering and I know the only thing I actually can do to help them is to donate. This is yet more reason for me to get back to work on IWRC’s Disaster Preparedness project so that we – all wildlife rehabbers -can all be ready to respond to these events in the future. I’ve lived through several big fire outbreaks here in southern California and I can honestly say that the only thing the local rehabbers needed from the outside rehabbers was money and moral support. So please, choose one or more of the rehab affiliated links that we have listed on this Facebook post and donate. – Brooke Durham
A fire incident that occurred on the afternoon of August 7 near Spencer Butte, Eugene, Oregon caused a gutted house, several burnt vehicles and charred trees. Fortunately, no one was injured in the fire and firefighters managed to prevent the fire from spreading. Located northeast of Spencer’s Butte, Cascades Raptor Center (CRC) decided to execute their evacuation plan the moment Executive Director Louise Shimmel saw a billowing plume of smoke a quarter mile away from the center.
How important is it to have a disaster preparedness plan?
“Extremely important,” said Shimmel. CRC’s detailed emergency action plan was put together by a graduate student at the University of Oregon who had past work experience with Red Cross. The Eugene Fire Department also inspected the center and gave their feedback, such as regulating parking spaces onsite for emergency vehicles and installing a staging area for staff and volunteers to meet and decide the next course of action during an emergency. According to Lane County’s Fire Safety Standards for Roads and Driveways, driveways should be at least 20 feet wide to allow access for fire fighting vehicles and turnaround as well, which CRC already has.
“In general consideration of state fire prevention guidelines, there were some things we could do and others we could not. We try to maintain a 13-foot high ceiling for fire trucks to get in but we don’t have a 30-foot perimeter around the buildings,” Shimmel said. “We want a comfortable habitat here for birds but that puts us more at risk.
As part of implementing the action plan, CRC’s volunteers helped build an emergency shed (generously funded by one of their volunteers) that stored supplies such as walkie-talkies and collapsible carriers for animals; marked drawers containing vital information and set up a backup procedure for their computers. Quarterly assessment checks on all batteries were carried out as well.
“It’s kind of hard to do a fire drill when you know that it isn’t real. But in this case, it was real,” Shimmel explained.
On the day of the fire, there were only eight people at the center; after activating the phone tree, another 19 volunteers and staff were there within 20 minutes to help with the evacuation. CRC’s Education Director, Kit Lacy, directed the evacuation plan: sprinklers on the side of the property toward the fire were turned on; with some 100 birds on site, dozens of carriers and transport boxes were put together and set up with towels and with sheets to cover them; any equipment with gasoline and any combustible items like oxygen tanks were moved away from the buildings; critical file and medical supply drawers were emptied, packed, and loaded into vehicles; computers were backed up.
Shimmel was grateful for the efficient fire and police response during the incident, and particularly their understanding and support of the magnitude of CRC’s evacuation requirements. Some of the roads leading to the butte were blocked to prevent traffic from entering, but police allowed responding volunteers through. A police officer was stationed near the driveway to CRC, keeping staff and volunteers in contact with the fire response effort. Just as volunteers were about to start loading birds into carriers, the police officer informed them the fire was contained, and staff decided to stand down. From start of activating the phone tree to the finish of putting away all the carriers, files, equipment, the whole exercise took about two hours. Staff had previously estimated – though without a fire drill to be sure – that it would take about two hours to get everybody ready to leave, depending on how many birds were on site and how many staff and volunteers were here to assist.”
What could have been done differently?
“Part of our plan is to, if necessary, simply release any flighted bird. When it came down to contemplating that, it’s clear that we would need to install release hatches on bird cages, instead of opening the doors and expecting them to fly down from 20 feet to 8 feet and then fly out,” Shimmel said.
What should all wildlife centers have in place?
Shimmel stressed the importance of a disaster preparedness plan for other situations (not merely fires) and having supplies set aside for emergencies – supplies that are not for daily use, but only for emergencies, even though that requires duplication. Regular checks should be done on batteries for electrical equipment such as walkie-talkies. A reciprocal agreement with other rehabilitation centers within the same area should be planned in case animals need to be held at another shelter if the center is not safe or has been damaged. Smoke detectors should be installed in all buildings along with frequent checks on the batteries.
The next imperative step is to have designated organization staff that are aware of the emergency plan and who know how to initiate it during an emergency. “We have staff here all the time along with volunteers, so they will know our plans and how to put it in action,” Shimmel said. Prevention is always better than cure – she contacts the non-emergency police and fire dispatch whenever she or anyone from CRC hears sirens nearby or a helicopter in the area, just to make sure it is not a hazardous incident that will affect the center.
At the end of the day, Shimmel was thankful that the fire did not affect the center directly and that the preparedness plan worked out despite not testing it out previously – post-event evaluations collected from everyone who assisted have also led to some good suggestions on how to improve the plan. “We had a good crew here who knew what to do. Everyone was so shaky afterwards. Adrenaline is tough,” she said. “It was, in the end, a good experience.”
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