California's recovery


Paradise, Calif. - Thick smoke forced him from his home, but it hasn't kept Dr. Mike Seely from visiting a local evacuation shelter where he checks on hundreds of pets and livestock displaced by the wildfires that burn throughout California.

Paradise, Calif. — Thick smoke forced him from his home, but it hasn't kept Dr. Mike Seely from visiting a local evacuation shelter where he checks on hundreds of pets and livestock displaced by the wildfires that burn throughout California.

Fighting fires: Forest Service Hot Shots set a backfire near a house to try to contain the Gap fire, officially the top priority fire in the state, on July 6 near Goleta, Calif.

A veteran veterinarian volunteer during fire season, Seely, 67, says he doesn't feel he has the option not to help.

"I have this affliction for helping people in need. It definitely tugs on my heart when I go home and sit in front of my TV and see a couple of my clients sitting on cots in the rescue shelter," Seely says. "That's the other part of being a veterinarian. It's helping the people feel good and comfortable, because those animals are so important to them. It's pretty simple for me — just get out there and help."

Displaced, but safe: Evacuated animals at an emergency shelter near Paradise, Calif., wait to return to their homes or be taken to another location.

Seely, a California DVM who practices from his Butte Mobile Veterinary Practice, was living in a trailer miles from home with his wife and children throughout much of the fire. He was one of the many forced from his home as more than 837,000 acres across the state burned. The official fire season hasn't even started, but Seely says this is the third fire already this year to hit Paradise — a rural town that has been anything but lately.

Caring hands: A rescue worker tends to a dog brought to a makeshift shelter near Paradise, Calif.

In Butte County, Seely's "turf," the amount of land affected by the fires from July 1 to July 14, went from about 17,000 acres to 53,000 acres. The fires started to finally die down July 13, and Paradise officials expected to start welcoming back residents. Damage is estimated at $53.3 million in Butte County alone, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. One death and 26 injuries were reported in Butte, and dozens of homes burned, according to the state, but no veterinary practices were affected, mainly because the fires primarily stuck rural areas.

Seely assists one of the many animal-rescue groups that have taken action in California in the absence of organized veterinary medical-assistance teams (VMAT). The North Valley Animal Disaster Group (NVADG) in Chico was founded by firefighter John Maretti after a few people died in a fire two years ago because they wouldn't evacuate without their animals and there was nowhere to take them. He sometimes calls veterinarians to assist the group's volunteer workers, but Maretti says he hasn't had to lately.

"For these last two incidents, I haven't had to call anybody, because they've been calling me," he says.

In addition to Seely, Maretti says another local veterinarian and students and staff from the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine have been stopping by the group's emergency shelter at Spring Valley School to help care for evacuated animals.

In fast-moving fires like the first one of the year a few weeks ago, a lot of livestock can be lost, Maretti says. The second fire resulted in some burnt paws but very few deaths; this fire is very slow-moving and has resulted in no fatalities, he says.

A supportive role

Providing comfort, watching for outbreaks of conditions that normally pop up when animals are crowded together and keeping the peace among the animal population is the biggest focus of his emergency work, Seely says.

"You walk in there and you help as much as you can and everyone feels better about it. Just being there, that's what counts," Seely says. "It doesn't take much time, just an hour, one visit, whatever."

Providing support for animal owners is also critical, especially to Seely, who is the regular veterinarian for many of the people who took refuge at the shelter.

"It was impressive to me to see their faces light up when they knew a veterinarian was there," he says. "That makes me feel really good. It's nice to be needed."

Not all areas hit by the nearly 1,500 fires burning in California were as lucky as Paradise, though. In Santa Cruz, the fire was located along the highway, making it harder for rescue workers to reach animals through the roadway congestion caused by human evacuations.

"The problem was our trailers got stuck in traffic and people would not move off the road for them. So animal-control officers were literally on site, watching animals die," says Staycee Dains, executive director of Santa Cruz Animal Services.

During a recent fire, Santa Cruz Animal Services evacuated about 300 animals, including many horses and livestock. Over the last month, Dains estimates the group evacuated about 800 animals. Thankfully, she says, the animals they did get out of the fire path were easily sheltered and cared for.

Dains, Seely and Maretti all championed the efforts of volunteer shelter workers and veterinarians for their work in caring for animals trapped by the fire, but Dains emphasized that fire season isn't officially over until October.

Most shelters have a roster of veterinarians lined up for emergency situations, and Seely encouraged other California DVMs to share their time and skills in a crisis.

"I think all veterinarians are sensitive to the situation," he says, adding that while some vets with practices might find it hard to break away, even a little effort is appreciated. "Just get there and show up. It's not like you're signing on to be there 24 hours a day."

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