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DVMs, volunteers aid evacuees following California fires

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San Diego - Wind-whipped wildfires drove Southern California residents from a cluster of "horse-loving" communities, leaving veterinarians and volunteers to care for thousands of animals left behind.

SAN DIEGO — Wind-whipped wildfires drove Southern California residents from a cluster of "horse-loving" communities, leaving veterinarians and volunteers to care for thousands of animals left behind.

At press time, fires that began Oct. 22 continued to burn four days later, leaving roughly half a million acres blackened, almost 1,500 homes destroyed and more than 500,000 residents evacuated. Dozens of veterinarians were forced from their practices, and at least two practitioners are among those whose homes have burned, says Pauline White, San Diego County Veterinary Medical Association (SDCVMA). The fires — intensified by Santa Ana winds sometimes gusting to more than 100 mph — were the most extensive in the state's history.

"Half the county has either burned or been evacuated. It's a nightmare here," says White, one representative of multiple organizations stepping forward to help. The American Veterinary Medical Foundation has also coordinated grant and assistance efforts similar to those in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Aid amid the flames

Trying to escape the blazes, evacuated horse owners turned to volunteers for help in caring for their animals. Threatened by the approximately 23 wildfires, more than 2,400 horses were evacuated to Del Mar Race Track, says Terry Paik, DVM and SDCVMA veterinary disaster-response coordinator. Oaks Blenheim/Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park in San Juan Capistrano offered 700 horse stalls, almost all of which are filled, says Julie Ryan Johnson, local DVM and volunteer.

While Orange County Fairgrounds housed 110 horses, other county stables accepted as many as they could. When full, they began waiting lists. Los Alamitos race course had room for 180 horses, and Industry Hills Equestrian Center up to 110.

"The way things are going, we'll probably have to use them," says Ryan Johnson, who owns Dana Niguel Veterinary Hospital in Dana Point with her husband. "This area has a lot of horses. It is a huge horse-loving community."

Some unaffected horse owners took animals into their private stables. But while rescue efforts came together, the wildfires, which have killed three people constantly reminded volunteers what they were up against. "When you look out in the distance, it is all smog and smoke. Yesterday it was raining ashes," Ryan Johnson says. "The fire keeps moving and changing and is scaring people. They are coming to us."

Despite the fire's severity, the horses are in good condition. "I'm getting the healthy ones. I haven't seen any burned ones. Other than being stressed, these horses are fine," says Ryan Johnson, at Oaks Blenheim. Volunteering DVMs were mainly treating colic, cuts and bruises, while others focused on gathering resources.

Heading the supply effort is Robert Harman, DVM and chief executive officer of Vet-Stem, a stem-cell research facility. "There haven't been many medical emergencies at this point; there are more issues with getting feed and water to those who need it while figuring out which animals belong to whom," says Harman, working with his staff out of their Poway-based office. "We've got power and water, so we've turned our people into information coordinators to see who needs what."

Water is the most important need of the horses now, as many communities no longer have running water and are resorting to well-water resources. Hay is also in shortage, as many Ramona-based hay barns have been lost in the flames.

The CVC West veterinary conference helped supply efforts too. Almost cut short when its venue, the San Diego Convention Center, was considered as an evacuation site, the conference collected exhibitor donations of pet food and supplies to help local animal owners and assist veterinary practices involved in rescue efforts.

Volunteers remained hopeful that animal casualties, which "won't be known until the smoke clears," will be minimal says Harman, whose own Ramona-based home was destroyed.

"Our ranch burnt to the ground, but all the horses and animals got out. It is buildings and grass — it can all be replaced," says Harman of the property he shared with is wife, Sue. "We're doing fine. We've got to keep pushing forward and do our best. We need to make sure we coordinate efforts and ensure that as the smoke clears we have all the resources for these horses, because their owners are displaced. That is what we are focused on."

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