Animals Evacuated by Kincade Fire Find Shelter and Expert Medical Care

The evacuation process from the Kincade Fire is stressful for both animals and owners. The UC Davis Veterinary Emergency Response Team provides medical assistance to the animals at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds' large animal evacuation shelter. (Sruti Mamidanna/KQED)

At the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, where more than 100 evacuated animals were sheltering in stables, the mood was upbeat. The long rows of stalls were occupied by a motley menagerie of all shapes and sizes: Most of the animals were horses but there were also alpacas, goats, sheep, and surprisingly, a pair of emus.

Yonder Hills Farm owner Kathy Jorgenson's barn burned down in the Kincade Fire. Nineteen of her horses were evacuated to Sonoma County Fairgrounds on Oct. 27, 2019.
Yonder Hills Farm owner Kathy Jorgenson's barn burned down in the Kincade Fire. Nineteen of her horses were evacuated to Sonoma County Fairgrounds on Oct. 27, 2019. (Sruti Mamidanna/KQED)

Around 10 a.m., some animal owners began to arrive. They helped themselves to donated apples, carrots and hay and walked their animals around the yard.

Yonder Hills Farm owner Kathy Jorgenson checks on her horses at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds evacuation shelter on Oct. 29, 2019.
Yonder Hills Farm owner Kathy Jorgenson checks on her horses at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds evacuation shelter on Oct. 29, 2019. (Sruti Mamidanna/KQED)

As flames from the Kincade Fire grew and evacuation orders began rolling out, some residents had to make the difficult decision to leave their animals behind as they fled their homes. That’s where Dr. John Madigan and his team stepped in.

Madigan founded and coordinates the UC Davis Veterinary Emergency Response Team (VERT), a group of volunteers who help rescue animals and provide medical care during disasters. VERT was started more than 20 years ago during a flood in the Central Valley.

"When we had a large scale emergency in 1997, because we were looked at as people that did things in emergencies, they gave us a call," Madigan said. "Since then, we've been activated for different levels of emergency."

Dr. John Madigan founded and coordinates the UC Davis Veterinary Emergency Response Team. During evacuations due to the Kincade Fire, the team provided medical assistance to animals evacuated to Sonoma County Fairgrounds.
Dr. John Madigan founded and coordinates the UC Davis Veterinary Emergency Response Team. During evacuations due to the Kincade Fire, the team provided medical assistance to animals evacuated to Sonoma County Fairgrounds. (Sruti Mamidanna/KQED)

Madigan says the presence of veterinarians can help animals and their owners cope with the trauma of living through a wildfire. Most of the animals at this shelter were doing well, but when animals are moved to a new location, they often experience stress, he said.

"You just try to make them happy. Food, water and keep them with a friend," said Madigan."Feed is calming too, and then what happens is we feed him too much and they get a stomach ache and colic. So we actually have to be really careful about that."

This British Guernsey goat belonging to farm owners Catherine and Brian Shapiro was among many large animals evacuated during the Kincade Fire to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on Oct. 27, 2019.
This British Guernsey goat belonging to farm owners Catherine and Brian Shapiro was among many large animals evacuated during the Kincade Fire to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on Oct. 27, 2019. (Sruti Mamidanna/KQED)

Veterinary students are part of the team. Second-year UC Davis students Briana Hamamoto-Hardman and Grace Bloom checked on a mule who was evacuated over the weekend.

"We're doing TPR’s — Temperature Pulse Respiration," Hamamoto-Hardman said. "Grace is taking her pulse and I’m looking her over to see if I notice anything like scrapes."

UC Davis veterinary students Grace Bloom (L) and Briana Hamamoto-Hardman (R) do a medical checkup on horse Bella who was evacuated from the Kincade Fire.
UC Davis veterinary students Grace Bloom (L) and Briana Hamamoto-Hardman (R) do a medical checkup on horse Bella who was evacuated from the Kincade Fire. (Sruti Mamidanna/KQED)

Like all emergency responders, the VERT team sometimes arrives too late to help.

"This one house was completely burned to the ground and all the paddocks were leveled and melted," Madigan recalled."As we walked out further, we could see that there were burned animals of different species.They were basically cremated."

Livestock owner Moises Lopez had to evacuate his goats to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on Oct. 27, 2019, to escape the encroaching Kincade Fire.
Livestock owner Moises Lopez had to evacuate his goats to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on Oct. 27, 2019, to escape the encroaching Kincade Fire. (Sruti Mamidanna/KQED)

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The training students receive working at shelters is invaluable, said Madigan. Hayley Dieckmann, a fourth-year veterinary student, has acted as a VERT coordinator for two years.

"Unfortunately, these incidents are happening more and more frequently, but it's also allowing us to improve," Dieckmann said. "We are forming teams that are not only trained, but also just so compassionate and dedicated to this field of work, that they are coming at it with empathy and a real drive to improve the situation for the animals here."