Health care providers and veterinary technicians from Stanford volunteered to help humans and animals affected by the most destructive fire in California’s history.
December 6, 2018 - By Susan Coppa, Susan Ipaktchian
Andre Burnier, MD, hadn’t taken his boots off in 24 hours. Even when he grabbed a nap on a cot under a Red Cross blanket, he kept his boots on so he could be ready at a moment’s notice to attend to patients.
It was Nov. 28. Earlier that day, Burnier, a second-year resident in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Stanford, had treated an elderly man whose home had been destroyed in the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history. “I’m sure he was expecting to live out his days in peace and at home,” Burnier said. “Everyone has a story, and the vast majority of their problems we can’t fix. It’s humbling.”
Burnier had deployed with the Stanford Emergency Medicine Program for Emergency Response, or SEMPER, to provide medical support for people displaced by the fire, which started Nov. 8 in Butte County, California, and was not fully contained until Nov. 25. Since being established in 2010, SEMPER has deployed teams of Stanford physicians and nurses to areas hit by disasters, such as earthquakes and hurricanes, around the world.
In addition to members of SEMPER, other Stanford Medicine employees have helped out in the wake of the fire’s destruction, including a clinical assistant professor who serves as the physician for Task Force 3 of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and veterinary technicians with the medical school’s Department of Comparative Medicine.
‘Second wave’ of medical support
The fire was responsible for at least 85 deaths. It destroyed nearly 14,000 homes and scorched 153,000 acres of land. More than 50,000 people were displaced. Some are still in shelters with nowhere else to go. The California Emergency Medical Services Authority called in SEMPER to provide a “second wave” of medical support for displaced residents.
“We are not treating high trauma,” said Ian Brown, MD, clinical associate professor of emergency medicine at Stanford and a leader of the SEMPER team that was volunteering Nov. 25-28. “Our biggest concern is infectious disease and chronic conditions, like diabetes, that have gone untreated.”
Carol Conceicao, MD, a second-year emergency medicine resident at Stanford, treated a pregnant patient at the shelter, but also set up a prenatal care plan for her. “We are setting these patients up for life after this disaster,” Conceicao said.
Members of the SEMPER team were stationed at shelters on the Glenn County and Butte County fairgrounds. Joselinda Landon, one of two nurses on the team, acknowledged that the work was demanding. “Sometimes we don’t sleep. The adrenaline keeps us going,” she said. “We might be up for 24 hours; we don’t care.”
She said her focus was on the fire victims and what they were facing. “The holidays are coming,” she said, nodding to people gathered at the shelter. “They don’t have a home. Their family is gone. I can feel their pain.”
‘No way to outrun it’
The Camp Fire was also different than anything Justin Lemieux, MD, had experienced. A clinical assistant professor of emergency medicine at Stanford and veteran of several relief missions, he said he had never witnessed anything like the devastation in Butte County.
Lemieux was part of the first wave of responders. He deployed as the team physician for FEMA Task Force 3 in the days immediately following the outbreak of the fire. The group established a base of operations in a trailer near what used to be the town of Magalia. There was no town when they arrived Nov. 17, just debris. During the briefing, the group was told that a wall of fire had raced through the neighborhoods at 800 meters per minute. Lemieux looked up the world record for the 800-meter run: 1:40. “Basically, if someone saw the flames, it was too late,” he said. “There was no way to outrun it.”
In groups, the task force members, including Lemieux, walked slowly and methodically through ruined neighborhoods, searching from one end to the other for survivors or remains, over collapsed structures, caved roofs and sharp debris. Other hazards included downed power lines and burned, overhanging tree branches. The soil had weakened in spots, and searchers moved cautiously to avoid falling in unseen septic tanks. The fire was still raging in areas, and the smoke was bad. But even worse, many buildings had asbestos and chemical products that had burned, potentially exposing team members to toxins. Lemieux and his team members wore head-to-toe protective equipment, including face masks.
“Sadly, the real service we were doing is searching, not rescuing,” Lemieux said.
Lemieux treated mostly foot injuries caused by the dangerous terrain. One of the first injuries came the night of Nov. 18 — to George, a highly-trained Malinois search dog. “These dogs are incredibly stoic,” Lemieux said.
Back at the base of operations, two team members held George, more to reassure than restrain him, as Lemieux stitched his leg. “When I finished, George jumped up and licked the hell out of my face,” Lemieux said. “He seemed to know my job was to help him.”
Lemieux and the team were onsite in Magalia for more than a week, spending Thanksgiving in tents away from family and friends.
Caring for injured animals
After seeing the reports of animals injured in last year’s fires in Northern California’s wine country, Ofelia Satterfield and Candice Alfaro decided they wanted to be able to help in a future disaster.
The two veterinary technicians in the Department of Comparative Medicine got the necessary training earlier this year and became part of a volunteer corps that could help during emergency situations. When the call for assistance went out during the Camp Fire, each of the women spent a daylong shift caring for the cats, dogs, birds and other small animals who were brought to a hangar at the Chico airport.
During Alfaro’s shift on Nov. 19, she helped triage the animals as they were brought in, and then spent hours caring for cats that had been burned. She said many of the cats were extremely dehydrated after being on their own for days without food or water.
Satterfield helped care for a variety of animals during her Nov. 24 shift, including a chinchilla that needed a dust bath, which helps remove dirt and excess skin oil from the rodent’s fur.
Although the animals were injured and away from their homes, Satterfield and Alfaro said the dogs and cats they treated seemed to realize that the volunteers were there to help them. “They were pretty mellow,” Alfaro said.
Both of the women said it was difficult to watch distraught Butte County residents come to the makeshift shelter in the hope of finding their lost pets. “People had lost their homes, and they were still searching for their pets,” Satterfield said. “It was hard to see them come in and then leave without finding their pet.”
Both Alfaro and Satterfield said the fire reinforced why microchipping and registering pets is important. “Some people might not think they need to microchip their pet if they keep the pet inside most of the time,” Satterfield said, but in the case of a fire, animals can quickly scatter. The volunteers worked with animal control officials to document each of the wounded animals to help owners locate their pets.
The Department of Comparative Medicine donated supplies for the animals; Michael Renzi, director of finance and administration for the department, delivered the supplies to Chico, in Butte County.
Volunteers from the North Valley Animal Disaster Group and the California Veterinary Medical Reserve Corps have provided care for the animals affected by the fires. Information about donating to the organizations is available online.
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