Baby bear with badly burned paws found in path of Tamarack fire

After evacuating from the growing Tamarack fire over the weekend, homeowners were relieved to find their house still standing, but they found a surprise in their backyard: a bear cub that had been injured in the blaze.

The frightened cub's paws were so badly burned that he tried to hobble away from his rescuers by walking on his elbows.

When the residents returned to their Markleeville house Sunday evening, they found the 6-month-old bear lying in their backyard, dehydrated and worn out.

Rescuers from Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care arrived within an hour and found the cub had crawled beneath the deck. He tried to get away, but the veterinarian staff and volunteers managed to corner and sedate him, wrapping the animal in a blanket for transport to the rescue center.

The 21-pound cub, dubbed Tamarack after the namesake wildfire burning in northeast California and Nevada, is now recovering at the wildlife center, animal care manager Jenny Curtis said Tuesday.

The baby bear was "not [in] terribly bad condition, but dehydrated, so he must have gotten burned early on in the fire," Curtis said. "He could move but not very well."

The Tamarack fire has been burning for 22 days in Alpine County, gobbling up 68,103 acres. Firefighters have turned a corner in the battle against the blaze, increasing its containment to 54% by Tuesday.

Some evacuation orders were lifted in Alpine and Douglas counties, allowing a couple thousand households to return to their homes, Mike DeFries, a spokesperson for the incident management team handling the fire, said Monday.

"Luck is on this guy’s side, as we were the only homeowners allowed back in the area,” the Markleeville homeowner — who has not been identified — said in a statement.

The Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care workers cleaned and bandaged the cub's wounds, wrapping his burned paws in gel and providing pain medication. On Tuesday, the team began grafting his burns with tilapia skins, an innovative procedure that allows for a quicker healing process.

In a video posted to the center's Facebook page, the cub can be seen curled up beside a large pillow and a giant stuffed teddy bear, resting.

He will stay at the center for several more months as he heals and grows, Curtis said. The team will teach Tamarack how to forage for food by feeding him mealworms tucked into logs and burying hornets' nests, full of enriching larvae, into the ground for the bear to dig up.

"We can't teach them everything that their mother would teach them obviously, but we teach them as much as we can," Curtis said.

The cub will be released back into the wild either this winter or spring, she said. Although he will not be returned to the burn scar, state wildlife leaders intend to keep the animal close to where he was born.

"We say they’re our bears, even though they’re not our bears," Curtis said. "They belong to nature."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.