Bear rescued from blaze comes to Tahoe for treatment

Dan Thrift / Tahoe Daily Tribune

Dan Thrift / Tahoe Daily Tribune

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE " Veterinarian Kevin Willitts gently unwraps bandages from the paw of a bear cub, carefully treating the 6-month-old bruin's burns.

All four of the cub's paws have severe second- to third-degree burns, with the outside toe missing on all four feet.

The cub " who's been named Lil' Smokey " arrived Friday at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care from Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Redding, Calif.

The bear received national attention after Adam Deem, a firefighter with the state fire agency, rescued the bear on July 17 in the Moon fire, one of the more than 2,000 blazes that started over the past month in California.

Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care is a nonprofit organization designed to raise, rehabilitate and release injured or orphaned animals, and the only center in California that can rehabilitate cubs and release them into the wild.

And this little bear cub has quite the battle in front of him.

"The question is " is there any pad tissue? And it's one we can't answer right now," said Willitts, owner of Alpine Animal Hospital.

If the cub doesn't have pad tissue, he won't be able to survive in the wild.

"You can't just graft it," said Willitts, who was treating the cub Monday at the rehabilitation center.

As with all burns, Willitts said they have to wait and see what tissue is going to live or die. They are trying four different known burn treatments, such as honey, silver sulfadiazine, and hydrocolloid wound dressing, to see if any one of them works better than the other. All they can do is keep the dressings clean and help the healing process the best they can for the next few weeks.

Tom Millham, co-founder of the center, said when he picked up the bear from Rancho Cordova, many were predicting he'd get a lot of phone calls.

"When I got back, Cheryl (Tom's wife and LTWC co-founder) said the phones had been ringing off the hook," Millham said.

Millham said he's received e-mails from all over the country, including Ithaca, N.Y., Massachusetts and Virginia.

Because of the national exposure, Millham said they've received more than $1,200 in donations.

"People definitely want to help," Millham said.

Millham said they have two bears besides Lil' Smokey. They weigh 35 to 40 pounds, but get all the food they need. The burned cub weighs 8 1/2 pounds. Most wild cubs are between 20 to 30 pounds.

Willitts said they have seen cubs at the same ages in all different sizes. Depending on what their diet is, and if a mother bear has to provide for two cubs adds variables to this outcome.

Millham said this is the third bear they've treated for burns, but the first cub. After the Angora fire, they treated one in the wild, and she healed well. The other had third-degree burns on all paws and maggots inside the wound. They had to euthanize the bear.

- Contact reporter Sara Thompson at


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