Fire in Paradise: My Story

A veterinarian tells of the long, smoke-filled hours caring for animals after the harrowing fires in California
a cat with singed whiskers
A cat at the Chico shelter. “I held rounds every two hours for all the cat-sector veterinary volunteers,” writes Deborah Thomson.
December 17, 2018

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It was the night of November 17 when I said goodbye to my husband and cat in Berkeley, California, and drove three hours up to the area of Paradise. In the previous nine days, the infamous Camp Fire smoke had already traveled over 170 miles to the San Francisco Bay area. More than a million people were breathing the thickened air, and I was headed near its source.

I was being deployed by the California Veterinary Medical Reserve Corps (CAVMRC), a group of veterinary volunteers who provide help during state emergencies. While driving up, I was wearing my N95 industrial face mask because I did not trust my car’s air filter. It made me look alien. I saw other drivers passing me on the highway sporting similar face masks. It was like a new world.

My friends thought I was crazy for putting myself in possible physical danger. After all, the fire had not yet been contained and the air quality was even worse near Paradise. Honestly, I was more concerned with how much suffering I would see. Last year, in Napa, I had volunteered to help wildfire victims and cared for cats including one that had burns down to the bone. Those are images that cannot be unseen.

While packing my overnight bag, I asked myself, Will I have even more images like that in my mind after this trip? It didn’t matter. I had sworn an oath. I committed myself to help the voiceless in their time of need. I am going up.

After arriving late at night, I started looking for the building that housed my designated cot and Red Cross blanket. I never found it. Instead, I found a veterinary technician who was still admitting burn victims at Chico Municipal Airport. She was a stranger who quickly became a friend, just like so many others I met over the following several weeks. She said that a local woman (who the tech had only met the day before) had opened up her home to any veterinary volunteer who needed a place to stay. I met this amazing woman and her husband on my third night staying at their beautiful home, and I’ll never forget their generosity.

Chico Airport was one of nine animal shelters that were manned or routinely visited by CAVMRC volunteers. It is comprised of one single terminal building (which we called “medical”) and is flanked by one administrative building (deemed “the cat sector”) and one airplane hangar (known as “aero”). Small animals and exotics occupied every possible room in all three buildings. This meant in one location hundreds of animals covered in fur, scales, or feathers were under CAVMRC’s care. All told, CAVMRC was responsible for 2,700 animals throughout all nine sites.

Deborah Thomson at her veterinary practice in Berkeley, California.While working on the patients, it’s easy to forget that you are at an airport until you turn your head and see the tarmac with grounded airplanes sitting just a few feet away. At home, I work at a hospital with sixty people on staff, but that hospital looks minuscule in comparison to this mega-shelter. Even my colleagues who were professional shelter veterinarians at the airport had never worked on such a scale. Three hundred and thirteen veterinary volunteers were deployed to assist, making Camp Fire the largest CAVMRC deployment in history.

I was assigned to be the head veterinarian in the cat sector, where I was responsible for 212 displaced and sick cats, as well as 82 exotic animals, including macaws, parakeets, finches, Amazon greys, cockatoos, cockatiels, rabbits, guinea pigs, gerbils, hamsters, rats, and a chinchilla. In addition to directly treating pets harmed by the fire and conducting physical exams on incoming pets, I oversaw up to six veterinarians and twelve veterinary technicians or assistants at a time. I also worked closely with an incredible intake volunteer as well as an amazing animal control officer.

As head veterinarian, my job was to communicate efficiently with two other head veterinarians (one in the terminal building and one in an airplane hangar building) as well as my supervisor (the field coordinator) about the needs of the animals and volunteers in my sector. My primary objective was to prevent any infectious disease from spreading, keep the stress level as low as possible among the animals (and volunteers), and to get any concerning patients more advanced care, which might include sending them out to a twenty-four-hour veterinary hospital.

If a cat developed signs of an upper respiratory infection (URI), I had to inform the owner (if found) and then shuttle the cat over to the URI-quarantined area located on the other side of the airport. When I found burns on a cat’s paws, I contacted the head veterinarian in the medical sector and made sure they had space and equipment prepared to accept that cat right away. I also needed to be aware of housemates in separate cages (and buildings) and, if one animal needed to be moved, I made sure that its housemate followed.

In order to keep such a chaotic environment as organized as possible, I held rounds every two hours for all the cat-sector veterinary volunteers. That way, I could stay abreast to medical concerns and rearrange the number of volunteers whenever one area of the sector required extra manpower.

After approximately three weeks, all animals were moved from Chico airport to various other locations. One makeshift shelter took over unused municipal buildings in Oroville, and was one of the original nine CAVMRC sites. Ultimately, hundreds of Chico airport animals arrived in Oroville, and this is where I have continued volunteering.

Each day, I saw people come into the shelter to find their pets. Sometimes they found them. Sometimes they did not. I overheard one animal control officer advise a group of disappointed Paradise residents that they should leave freshly worn clothing at their (burned out) properties so their pets might pick up their scent.

One day, I met a woman who had evidently been through chemotherapy. She told me that, despite her neighbor’s warnings, she returned to her trailer as the flames were approaching. She returned to save her rabbits and parakeets. Fortunately, they all survived. However, her home and all of her worldly possessions have been incinerated. She told me that she lives for these animals.

As you can imagine, this is an event that changes lives. I know it has changed mine. I have seen so much: from people opening up their homes to faraway strangers, to children writing encouraging posters, to volunteers driving twelve hours in a day to work a ten-hour shift, to people finding their beloved yet slightly worn-out pets. I’ve seen tears of sadness and tears of joy. Even though the Camp Fire started over one month ago, sick and displaced animals continue to be admitted to the shelter in Oroville. This is far from over. 

While everybody who has breathed in the thickened air has their own story, my seventy-plus hours of volunteering have been a reminder that veterinarians are a powerful force for good. We have the ability to improve both the health of animals and the wellbeing of their owners. And in Paradise, where they don’t have much left, at least they have each other.

Dr. Deborah Thomson is a small-animal clinician as well as a One Health educator in public schools around the San Francisco Bay area. She graduated from Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in 2012 with a D.V.M. degree as well as a Certificate in International Veterinary Medicine. Thomson continues to volunteer to care for animal victims of the Camp Fire on her days off. Since volunteering with CAVMRC in November, she has been promoted to field coordinator for future state disasters.