California wildfire: Vets battle to reunite pets with their owners after deadly blaze

Baylee Danz did not panic when she woke to the news of a wildfire nearby. Fires came with the territory in this place she had lived all her life, at the intersection between mountainous national forest and populated northern California towns. Until now, her family had been safe in Magalia, California, just north of Paradise.

Only a few hours later, she was fleeing from the deadliest blaze in state history with her mother, father and grandmother. Her neighbour’s house was already burning down. The Camp Fire was at their heels and Ms Danz said she sobbed from loss and regret. Not only was she about to lose her childhood home, she could not find her cats, Coco and Pebbles, before they had to leave.

"I didn't realise the seriousness of the situation until I saw the flames," she said, "and by then it was too late."

Nearly 10,000 homes around Paradise and Magalia have been destroyed since the Camp Fire ignited early 8 November. The fire spread so fast, people barely had time to save themselves, let alone their pets.

Over the past week, first responders have carried thousands of injured animals out of the ashes to emergency veterinary hospitals. Many of them were found sitting in the smouldering rubble of their former homes, burned and dazed.

At VCA Valley Oak Veterinary Centre in Chico, California, the staff cancelled regular appointments so doctors could focus on wildfire victims. Hundreds of pets, mostly cats, were dropped off over the course of five days.

"We've run out of space," said Daniel Gebhart, the co-medical director at Valley Oak. He had about 20 animals under his care on Wednesday.

Injuries include smoke inhalation, dehydration and severe burns, Mr Gebhart said. The animals in the worst condition, with third-degree burns all over their bodies, have had to be euthanised. Fortunately, the vast majority of the animals that have come through Valley Oak's door have been saved, Mr Gebhart said.

Veterinarians administer pain medication to the burn victims immediately. They are given fluids, antibiotics and oxygen depending on the nature of the wound.

"Once they're stable, we can debride and clean the wounds," Mr Gebhart said. "We've been so emotional the past five days. It's so sad to see; they're in such terrible pain."

The Small Animal Clinic at the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine took in 32 cats with burn-related injuries over a two-day period, according to the clinic's chief of emergency services, Steven Epstein.

"Most of the injuries are related to actual burns, mainly to their feet," Mr Epstein said. "A lot of foot pad injuries that take two to three weeks to heal."

Their ear tips and faces also have been singed or even burned down to the skin in many cases. There might be lower-airway disease if they were breathing toxic gases. Some come in with burns in their nasal cavities or their mouths if they were surrounded by fire, which has another effect, Mr Epstein says. "They need feeding tubes because they don't want to eat."

Emergency room doctors often say human burn victims are the most difficult to care for because of the agony the injuries cause for the patient. Mr Epstein said it is similar for veterinarians. And burns are "striking," he said, "since it's a very visual disease."

First-degree burns might only take a few days to heal, he said. More severe burns take weeks to months.

"My staff are very emotional right now," Mr Gebhart said. They are stressed and fatigued, but caring for the community's animals is "the most important thing we can do."

Of the nearly 2,000 animals the North Valley Animal Disaster Group have taken into its shelters, most have been cats. But there have been hundreds of dogs, rabbits and chickens, and dozens of larger animals such as horses, goats, sheep and cows.

Overwhelmed by animals, local veterinarians have been transferring the healthiest patients to the disaster group's shelters, which are set up at the Chico Municipal Airport and regional fairgrounds.

Then comes an equally difficult task: connecting injured pets with their owners.

Lucky animals have microchips, tiny implants that, when scanned, display their owners' contact information. Without microchips or tags, the identification process can be difficult because of the nature of the injuries. Whiskers are singed off. Ears are painfully burned at the edges. What fur is left is shaved to facilitate treatment. Some could be unrecognisable.

Vets, rescue groups and volunteers are using social media to reunite pets with their humans. Multiple groups have launched since the wildfire started with the sole purpose of reconnecting Camp Fire survivors with their cats and dogs.

Ms Danz shared photos of Coco and Pebbles on her personal Facebook page. "If anyone sees them, please contact me," she wrote.

Soon she had a small army of strangers and friends searching for her cats in photos tagged "found" – dozens of pets with bandaged paws, cone collars, whiskers burned down to nubs. The photos tagged "reunited" were rare flashes of hope.

"One thing I've noticed in this tragedy is the kindness of others, even strangers," Ms Danz said. "People I didn't even know would comment on my posts. I had this whole invisible team looking for my cats."

A good Samaritan found Coco on the UC-Davis Facebook page. Her paws were burned in the fire and three were still wrapped when Ms Danz saw her on Thursday. An animal-control rescue team found Coco three streets away from her former home.

"She is in good condition, though," Ms Danz said. "She's eating and loves to be petted."

Pebbles is still missing, but she is alive. Someone found her stalking around the rubble of Ms Danz's former home in Magalia. "She was always a bit of a wild one," Ms Danz said, "and definitely a survivor."

Her childhood home is a heap of ash and blackened rubble now, but at least she has Coco, her childhood cat.

"We do want to stay in the area," Ms Danz said. "We want to try and rebuild."

The Washington Post