During the Butte and Detweiller Fires, a Tuolumne County Animal Control veterinary technician saw animals in distress and limited resources at emergency evacuation centers to be able to care for them.
Ever since then, Christina Whitcomb, 31, of Jamestown, and a two-year employee of Tuolumne County Animal Control, has been thinking about forming a volunteer battalion of veterinarians, technicians, and exotic species experts to assist in the “emergency medical care of animals in disasters.”
In anticipation of the 2018 fire season, Animal Care Emergency Services (ACES) is coming together. At least 17 people have been enlisted for the team — all employed in animal services in Tuolumne County — but even more will be needed if a disaster strikes, Whitcomb said.
“I really just saw the need for it because every year it seems like things are getting worse and worse, whether it’s fire or floods,” she said. “Basically we’re just providing a medical team that has never been there before. It’s the first of Tuolumne County. During the disaster, Animal Control will be there, but to have a team to help aid them, I think it's going to be extraordinary.”
In the onset of a natural disaster, said Tuolumne County Animal Control manager Mike Mazouch, whether it be a fast-moving blaze, a huge mudslide, or rushing floods, the total amount of animal evacuations will often outweigh the number of human evacuations.
Notwithstanding domesticated pets of dogs and cats, all range of livestock from herds of cattle, teams of horses, pigs, goats, and sheep, may need to be safely housed or given medical treatment, he said.
“The need for that comes into place because of the size of the fires that we encounter out here. There's a lot of people and a lot of animals involved. Most of our people will be out in the field or at the shelter maintaining our normal duties. It relieves me from having to use paid staff, so the volunteers can take care of the animals.”
The primary mandate of Tuolumne County Animal Control, to care for the dozens of dogs and cats at the 10040 Victoria Way shelter in Jamestown, will still have to be maintained, he said.
Though some personnel will be dispatched to the field for evacuations or medical services, more manpower means a more effective, and more rapid emergency response.
“We would not be able to do that at a reasonable rate so we are employing these people to help alleviate that,” he said.
During the Butte Fire in 2015, there simply was not enough manpower for animal care needs at the Calaveras County Fairgrounds near Angels Camp, Whitcomb said.
There were more than 100 horses, she said, some of which were in debilitating distress from colic, a severe stomach ailment.
Because horses cannot vomit, many were frantically rolling on the ground to alleviate the bloat of gastric buildup in their stomachs and were at risk of torsion, she said.
“There were people there taking care of them but you could tell that they were just exhausted because there wasn't enough people to do this,” she said.
And during the Detweiller fire, though many affected animals were located at a evacuation center in Mariposa County, an influx of goats, horses and dogs also initiated a disaster response by Tuolumne County Animal Control.
Whitcomb said there were not any animals in desperate distress at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds — stalls were built for horses and some Animal Control employees slept on cots with little blankets with the displaced animals — but the resources of the agency were stretched thin.
The ACES team will be activated through a chain of command beginning with the Tuolumne County Office of Emergency Services, Mazouch said.
With this “trickle down theory,” OES will notify Tuolumne County Animal Control, who will then contact Whitcomb to initiate the team to aid in evacuations, staff evacuation centers, and triage injured animals.
The first step, Whitcomb said, would be organizing all 17 of the team members, including four licensed veterinarians, registered veterinary technicians, receptionists and exotic species specialists, into a scheduling format where care could be administered 24 hours a day.
In the case of an emergency, contact information would have to be established for animals and their owners, and animal housing would systemized into barns and pens.
An exotic animal specialist was key, she added, because snakes, birds, rabbits, chicken and other reptiles would have to be kept in a different environmental area then livestock or domesticated pets.
“We want to make sure that everybody is being treated with the utmost care and that everything is organized and that operations are ran smoothly,” she said.
The team could always use more experienced members, including the one missing piece: a large animal veterinarian, she said.
ACES will have a booth at the Volunteer Fair at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds on April 26 to assist in recruiting new members, she said.
“I need as many people as possible because when this disaster happens these people have jobs and work so when I activate his team I can schedule for certain days,” she said. “The more people we have the more accurately we can schedule people accordingly.”