'Locomotive roar' of fires swallows DVMs' homes


A "surreal" scene captures more than one veterinary account of the wildfires that consumed more than half a million acres and snatched the lives of more than 20 people in Southern California.

A "surreal" scene captures more than one veterinary account of the wildfires that consumed more than half a million acres and snatched the lives of more than 20 people in Southern California.

As the wildfires began to spread, to help veterinarians brace for the worst, AVMA sent more than 300 disaster information packets to its members in Rancho Cucamonga, San Bernardino and San Diego, Calif.

Yet for some, there wasn't enough time to consider disaster planning as the fires leveled properties mercilessly. Of the 3,000 homes lost in the blazes, seven belonged to veterinarians residing in Lakeside, Scripps Ranch, Valley Center, Julian and Crest. Yet remarkably, at presstime no veterinary practices were reported damaged, except for sporadic power outages.

But for Dr. Peter Slusser, internist at Animal Internal Medicine in San Diego, life may never be the same again.

He was home alone in Lakeside, Calif., on the night of Oct. 25, sound asleep when the smell of smoke jolted him awake at 2 a.m. The smoke, coupled with a strong easterly Santa Ana wind that was blowing hot desert air over the mountains, prompted him to step outdoors. After a brief check of his property and lack of news reports on the radio or television, he wasn't convinced of imminent danger until an hour later.

"Just as I stepped outside, I saw the tops of the flames just peeking over the hill about a quarter of a mile away from the house," he says.

He hurried to awaken his tenant in a guesthouse and started rounding up his crew of companion animals (five birds, four cats and three dogs). By the time his truck was loaded, the fire had traveled half the distance from the top of the hill toward his house.

"As I was standing in the driveway, I could feel the heat beating down on me from the wall of flames, and there was a locomotive roar accompanying the heat," he recalls.

He started up the engine on his truck around 3:30 a.m. and evacuated; by 3:45, his house was burnt to the ground, along with four other houses at the end of his road.

"We lost everything except the live beings and two vehicles," Slusser says. Gone were 30 years of photographs, an in-home business, all his family's clothes, furniture, personal belongings and numerous vehicles, some of which are irreplaceable. (He collected motorcycles.)

Slusser feels fortunate he didn't lose more than his house - four people in his neighborhood died while trying to escape.

When he returned days later to where his house formerly stood, Slusser was struck by the ghastly sight: the entire four miles of road was burned to the ground on both sides; his only identifiable mementos included Corningware, some twisted bird cages, and one charred coffee mug.

Describing the scene, he says, "It was dusk-like even in the middle of the day. There were still some smoking tree trunks and telephone poles. The vegetation had burned to the ground, leaving bare dirt and black boulders. The landscape looked like nuclear holocaust."

Safeguards not enough

Firefighters assessing Slusser's former residence say he could not have done much more to prevent such devastation.

His house was stucco (which did not burn) with a cement tile roof and 100 feet of cleared ground around the house. It was equipped with an indoor sprinkler system.

"None of those safeguards even came close to stopping the firestorm. The heat was so intense, it melted the wheels off one of my cars into molten puddles of aluminum which congealed on the driveway," Slusser describes.

Slusser, who had never been involved in a fire before, says he knew he was somewhat vulnerable to wildfires living in the rural eastern part of San Diego. Therefore, he says he had all the evacuation supplies for the animals in a known convenient spot.

He says what he did not have, but now plans to purchase, was a fireproof safe to hold important documents.

Nevertheless, he's grateful for what he does have. "Retrospectively, I feel very lucky to be alive," he says.

Other harrowing experiences

Dr. Paul Fenner, who practices at Bernardo Heights Veterinary Hospital in San Diego, lost a barn to the fire and says it's "a miracle" he didn't lose his house.

"We've been here 16 years, and this is the first time we've actually had to evacuate. But we're always on edge when the wind starts to blow," Fenner says.

The last time Fenner saw his house, "there were huge flames lapping at the edge of it." But when he returned a couple days later, a burnt up broom and wooden planter stood next to a house that escaped damages.

"We were much calmer than we thought we would've been," Fenner says of his experience.

Likewise at his veterinary practice, he says he's fielded only a few distress calls from clientele.

"The uproar in owners' lives may have stressed these pets more than anything," he says.

Diane Augustine, practice manager at her husband Dr. John Augustine's veterinary clinic in Poway, Calif., was equally convinced they wouldn't have a house when they returned to their rural community after the fires vacated the town.

"Once we evacuated, I thought, it was a nice house while we lived there," Augustine says.

While houses near their residence burnt, their house was spared. "We're one of the blessed ones," she says.

Despite the grim circumstances, calls to the Augustines' clinic have been minimal. Doctors treated a cat that had walked through some embers and also cared for a dog suffering from severe smoke inhalation. The clinic fielded several calls from clients whose pets were lethargic.

Augustine says the silver lining to the wildfire devastation is how people came together. "Our experience has been positive from the people standpoint - people helping people and not panicking."

County VMA status report

At press time, the San Diego County Veterinary Medical Association (SDCVMA) was "pleased to report" no additional losses to the veterinary community.

However, Pauline White, SDCVMA executive director, says she remains unsettled by the increasing number of reports of "near misses."

"I doubt there is anyone in this community who has not been touched or affected in some way by this surreal disaster," says White.

Related Videos
© 2023 MJH Life Sciences

All rights reserved.