Pinery Fires and the Brave Survivors November 25th



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Our nurse Sandy Brown had asked to be excused from work. The Pinery, SA fire was not heading towards her house, but she had children and needed to get home so she would not be cut off from them if the fire turned. It did turn. In the hot strong winds it accelerated beyond anyone’s comprehension.
The big fire in California in 2015, burned 77,000 acres in 2 days. The Pinery fire burned 225,000 acres in 5 hours. The fire was clocked at 130 km per hour. There was no time to activate a bushfire plan, to remove heirlooms and pictures or even collect the cats and dogs. Livestock would have to fend for themselves. You had to be in your car and well on your way racing from the oncoming flames and still people were caught in the onslaught.
When the Sampson Flat fire hit in January 2015 horse owners had hours to remove horses from the fire’s flight path. Some horses were moved several times as the fire spread. In January we saw stressed horses and many colicky horses that were moved and put into strange places and given unfamiliar hay and grain. I expected something similar to the January 2015 fires, with the latest fire – that was not meant to be.
Late in the day a call came in with a request that we attend four horses
that had been burnt near the town of Roseworthy. My office manager, Jodie Vaughan, and a vet student doing placement, Jordan Ashby asked to
join me.  My car was low in petrol, but I thought it best to head up and then come back to the town to get petrol.
We arrived at the property owned by our client, Kylie Kemp, who had been ordered to flee and her friends were helping with the horses. To get access to the horses we had to drive through burning embers. Kylie’s horses, Bella, Wyatt, Ash and a pony called Cupcake, later renamed “The Terrorist” by me after she bit me twice when I was giving her pain relief, were all standing together inside a corral.
All four horses were in shock, their manes and tails were singed, curly and smelled of burning hair.  They were blinking
and their eyes were running and they appeared to have corneal ulcers. There were obvious burns on their muzzles and all had oozing from their coronary bands which was a significant worry. (My one past experience with this, a few days after the fire, the hoof started sloughing off). Had Kylie been there, I might have made a serious mistake and suggested euthanasia We applied a safe ointment to their eyes to provide relief, we administered anti-inflammatories and rubbed Flamazine on the visible burned skin.
Overall, Kylie’s horses fared well in a very bad situation and after treatement it was time to move on.
So here is a question many of us have asked. Are you the kind of person who would run into a burning building to save someone? I have dreaded ever being tested with that scenario, but here was the test. If we turned left out the driveway we could go back to town and out of the fire zone. If we turned right we would head into the fire area, and we could then, at least, attempt to examine and treat our staff’s, clients’ and good friends’ horses to see if any could be saved or at least administer first aid.
We had no petrol in the car and it was
a short trip back to the closest petrol station, but there was a station up at Hamley Bridge where we could refuel and see what assistance we could offer. Lacking a good workplace safety code, and pretty much any common sense, we turned right. The plan was to try and see as many clients as possible.
There were fires all around us, rarely
did we see a moving vehicle. We saw a truck and horse float burnt on the side of the road and we drove around fallen trees: it was carnage. I then realised that there would be no power and I would not get petrol at Hamley Bridge. One of the places I was heading to was my nurse’s farm. I figured with lots of luck I could get to Sandy’s farm and siphon petrol from her car.
Up in these burnt areas there were no cell phone towers, and so we had no reception for phone calls or GPS and in the smoke and ravaged land it was hard to get your bearings. We were totally lost, and ended up on a dirt road that had trees down all along it. We moved several trees by hand, and then finally we were blocked by a big fallen tree. We had to turn back and eventually we travelled through a chicken farm that normally has top biosecurity gates and fences. There were no standing fences, and the gates had melted. We crossed through fields that were 6 inches deep in fine powdery sand and arrived at Sandy’s driveway.
Sandy said that four of her horses had perished, but two were alive and seemed unharmed. We could see the dead carcasses in the field as we drove up to her house. The sight was sickening.
The two horses that survived had similar injuries to the previous horses we had seen. We treated their eyes and muzzles and dispensed some sedation so Sandy could transport them to our clinic. The fire had destroyed Sandy’s fencing, but with total destruction surrounding us, her timber house and structures were still standing.
My petrol, or lack of, was now about two clicks past critical, but we managed to siphon a litre from Sandy’s ride on mower so we could drive to my receptionist, Jodee O’Leary’s house. Fortunately Jodee and her daughter were away at the time competing in Victoria with their remaining horses.
It was now dark and there was nothing left that was familiar to use as landmarks. Huge sheds that hold large tractors
had melted and were unrecognisable. We finally made it to the property, but unfortunately Jodee had lost her house, one horse, fencing and her tackroom. Her three horses had similar injuries to the others we had seen so we treated them and made them as comfortable as possible.
Our final stop was at Michelle Gregory’s property which had several horses. The lack of power (and water) proved to be problematic and it was difficult to see the extent of the horses’ injuries. All but one had extensive burns.  A younger mare was badly burnt and in severe distress, the decision was quickly made to euthanise her. Michelle’s other horses had the same weeping eyes and their muzzles were painful, so we administered Flunixyl and Flamazine and eye ointment and again made them comfortable.
It was now time to go back to the clinic to prepare for several of the horses that were coming in for further assessment and treatment.
I am fortunate that I have a very good colleague/friend, who is one of the world’s experts in responding to disasters, Dr John Madigan from U.C. Davis in America, who lectures all over the world on the role of veterinarians in disaster response. He had been one of the many veterinarians to help out in a recent huge Californian fire from my old stomping grounds.
His advice, aside from suggesting we start a fundraising program to deal with these horses, was to prepare for the long haul. He said it was hard to predict about the hooves and some might slough their hooves but most wouldn’t. He frowned on the idea of icing the legs. The only advised icing from many burn specialists including the human specialists was to ice for 20 minutes to cool the initial burn and then never again.
With the first arrivals to the clinic most had suffered burns, however, the last group had burns and lacerations which complicated their recoveries. As they arrived we wrapped lacerations with Flamazine and gave tetanus vaccine boosters, which is very important to any burn cases. Two were started on antibiotics due to lacerations.
The next day triage commenced. Sandy’s, and now Jodee’s horses were the least affected. They all had corneal ulcers which was an interesting feature of these “grass fire” burned horses.  The needs of all the horses were assessed. Some were quite bright and well hydrated, despite what looked like devastating painful injuries. Four of the horses were given IV fluids on the first day. Because of their burns their mouths were so sore they couldn’t eat and drink much. After that day they seemed to bounce back, and despite the pain they all ate and drank well.
The horses we thought were the worst were not the ones that actually were the worst.
Wyatt’s mouth was so painful he could hardly eat. Crystal was another. Their chests and legs were showing more and more signs of burns, however these horses recovered quickly. The grey Quarter Horse, Ash, was depressed and had swollen legs.
She was observed urinating blood or reddish urine. We thought it must be muscle degradation, but it was really disintegration of her red blood cells. You could almost say her blood boiled from the heat. She was also starting to have ventral edema. In the early stages she looked miserable, but she just kept eating. We ran blood work to see how her vital organs were working. To our surprise there was no indication of kidney disease or any other major problems. She was losing protein from the damaged areas. This was common in all the severely burned horses. Their vessels leaked plasma and protein levels dropped. Ash was the worst, but her skin still looked pretty good. So we decided to wait a day or two to see how she fared.
To treat the wounds we had to sedate the horses. To clean the wounds we used a product called Liquid Organic Cleaner
(LOC) by Amway, it removes dirt but does not over kill bacteria. It was great to soften and loosen dead skin.  Keeping skin infections to a minimum was critical.
Some of the conditions we expected such as respiratory problems didn’t happen, as the horses had been kept on antibiotics for three days and longer if they had serious lacerations. All the horses were on pain relief with Flunixin twice daily.
We were also very concerned about gastric ulcers and colitis, but despite having six horses on heavy duty non-steroidal medication for a lengthy period, we had no signs of gastric ulcers or colitis in very stressed horses.
So the daily routine was to let them eat a bit, sedate and clean wounds and re-bandage the legs. It took about 8 or so people from 7am to about 2pm daily to treat all the horses. We would reconvene in the late afternoon and medicate and feed again.  And this is where I need to emphasise the role of the volunteers and the veterinary students who were on placement with us during the initial days following the fire. We asked for volunteers. We didn’t have enough staff, and our goal was to treat these horses until they could go home, and in some cases had homes to go to due to the fire damage, and have no bills for the owners when it was all over.
Boy, did people step up and help out. There was a core of people who came once or several times a week for an entire month. It wasn’t easy for anyone dealing with the horses to watch more and more burned skin show on these horses. It was hard to remove skin one day and then find the burn areas were visibly increasing and expanding.
As with the volunteers who gave us their time so freely we are also especially grateful for the human burn specialists such as Cheryl Rosiak who is a horsewoman and a former burns nurse with extensive experience in less than ideal conditions. She came several times and showed us how to clean and bandage horses using sterile Chux impregnated with the topical of de jour.
Stress was a real issue for everyone. I couldn’t sleep at first. We probably all needed counselling. So the rotation of the volunteers was vital to our sanity. My coping mechanism was to focus only on positive steps. I was ecstatic with some small piece of good news. I put the bad news in the back of my mind.
For my offsider Dr. James Meyer and I, it was kind of like tag team. I did most of it the first week and he did it the second week and then I took over for the duration. The staff and volunteers were, shall we say, understandably “edgy”. I can’t thank them and James enough.
In the first two weeks there was little to be joyous about. Very little… More and more skin came off and more and more problems showed up.
We started an experiment with the use
of honey. We essentially had four horses that were burned on all four legs. I had used Manuka Honey and found it to be very useful and, dare I say, superior to Flamazine.
Donations of Flamazine, Sorbolene, Aloe Vera Gel, water coolers and a ton of honey were coming in. We treated the injuries by wrapping one side with honey and one side with Flamazine. Both were good but honey was less expensive. We only had a small amount of Manuka Honey and frankly, I don’t think there was enough Manuka Honey in all of Australia to cover these legs, but we found raw honey very effective. So some horses got honey, some Flamazine and some a mixture. After the first week we also introduced Aloe Vera for pain relief and it was great, Ash especially liked it on her neck and hips. So eventually many of the horses had a mixture of all three for topicals.
During this period Michelle’s chestnut mare Penny, looked uncomfortable, she could barely weight bear on her hind leg, and I was concerned the hoof was about to slough off. I agonised about the situation and the quality of life issue. I spoke with Michelle and we agreed it was time.  Arrangements were made for later in the day when the ‘funeral director’ could come.
While we were waiting we decided to put her on the lawn. To our delight she put her head down and got stuck into the grass, like it was Christmas. I kept watching her for about an hour. I kept going over and looking at her foot and the movement of the coronary band and hoof capsule. The last thing I wanted was to do was But as she came out of her daily sedation she just looked better and better. Michelle showed up to say
“goodbye”. I explained that I had rushed the judgement and I wanted to give her another day. We would see how things went with Penny for a few days. I just prayed she didn’t throw her hoof off. That is an ugly scene.
One of our best moves was the introduction of “lawn time”. We fenced off our large oval “castration” lawn and let the horses go out for a few minutes every day to graze. At night we poured the water onto the lawn to keep it green, and minimised the time each horse was allowed to walk around. I am sure the lawn was a big factor in the mental wellbeing of the horses. I even mentioned to someone who was not coping well that they needed some lawn time. Heck, I needed lawn time.
The next three weeks consisted of daily sedations and bandage changes adjustment of medications for pain, ulcer meds and lawn time.
We filled two big dumpsters with bandages in a very short time. Thankfully we had most of the products donated and the fundraising via GoFundMe
was tracking along well, we were/are determined that no owner should face a vet bill after all they and their horses had been through.We estimate we
are $10,000 short to cover the basic expenses but hopefully with more donations this will reduce further.
Questions are often raised about how much pain an animal must suffer and of course this question was raised throughout the last few weeks.
I am a big believer in quality of life. Unnecessary suffering is not on my agenda. I was not prepared to actually estimate the burns and how much tissue was going to be lost. By the same criteria, I was not prepared to estimate how well the horses would react to this painful process.
What we know, and never stop learning, is that horses are amazing creatures. Their pain thresholds are so varied, most of these horses never stopped eating or reacting to a kind word (Cupcake might be an exception on the kind word thing). The horse’s tolerance for burn pain is quite amazing.  It depends on the horse and the injuries it has sustained and how they handle those injuries.

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