June 25, 2007

Summer Heat Rouses Snakes, Rattles Hikers

By Charles McCarthy, The Fresno Bee, Calif.

Jun. 25--Frank Bigelow is no stranger to rattlesnakes.

He's killed them right in his yard in the foothills near O'Neals. And they turn up regularly on his Madera County cattle ranch.

His son, Matt, who also works the ranch, already has killed six rattlers this year -- "and they were in a biting position," said Bigelow, a county supervisor.

With the arrival of summer heat, it's high season for rattlesnakes in Central California, and officials are putting out the word: be careful.

As temperatures rise, rattlesnakes are known to seek refuge in the same places humans turn for relief: near streams and lakes and beside outdoor refrigerators. The snakes also are known to hang out around rural pump houses, in suburban backyards and under porches.

"Look before you reach or grab hold of something," warned Alexia Retallack, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Fish and Game. "Their strike speed is 174 mph."

Known contemptuously as "buzztails" to hikers, fishermen, hunters and rural firefighters, rattlesnakes have been found all over California -- near beaches at sea level, all the way up to 10,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada.

Because rattlesnakes aren't on any state list of protected species, there is no law against killing them.

But experts say it doesn't have to come to that.

Rattlesnakes account for about 800 bites every year in the United States but are blamed for only one or two deaths. They don't chase people. Given an exit from human contact, a rattler usually will slither away.

"Rattlesnakes really bite in self-defense," Retallack said.

Sometimes, she said, people can mistake a snake for a fallen branch or a floating stick. She recommends that hikers avoid log piles and debris, which rattlers might use as a habitat.

And sometimes, rattlesnake encounters can be a real pain.

Fresno lawyer Mark A. Coleman isn't sure what the rattlesnake was doing around a mountain stream above Big Creek before it bit him in June 2001. But he remembers the painful result.

Coleman had been riding mountain bikes with his then-12-year-old son. His dog was checking out a blackberry bush near the water while the bikers were looking for a safe place to cross the stream.

"I went over to get [the dog] out, and I assume that's where I got bit," Coleman said. "I didn't feel it at all."

Crossing the stream in the cold mountain water, Coleman first felt a tingling and then his right leg became painful.

The ankle was bleeding profusely, but he saw no fang marks.

Still not realizing that a rattlesnake had injured him, he climbed about a mile to where he could use his cell phone.

Big Creek volunteer firefighters and paramedics responded, calling for an ambulance from Shaver Lake. By then, the fang marks were apparent. A helicopter was called in to airlift him to Saint Agnes Medical Center in Fresno.

"I was hospitalized for five days," Coleman said. "It was excruciatingly painful because of the swelling."

At Saint Agnes, spokeswoman Jaime Huss said that the hospital's pharmacy keeps rattlesnake antivenom in stock. Other Fresno-area hospitals do, too.

At Cal Fire's Madera-Mariposa-Merced ranger unit headquarters, spokeswoman Karen Guillemin said that in the morning when she goes hiking near her Coarsegold home, she sees two or three snake tracks in the dirt roadway.

"We do instruct our crews on that issue," the 15-year firefighting veteran said.

"Normally, it's stay away as much as possible."

The last rattlesnake bite to a firefighter in the Madera-Mariposa-Merced ranger unit was five years ago. But fire crews are instructed what to do in case of snakebite.

"It is a hazard of the job," Guillemin said.

The reporter can be reached at [email protected] or(559) 675-6804.


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