Snakes are usually shy creatures that avoid human contact. Unfortunately, wildland firefighters are at risk of coming across snakes due to their work environment. It should be noted that most snakes in the United States do not have venom. However, bites from non-venomous snakes can still cause significant infections and injury. Thus, it is best to avoid all snakes and bites when possible.
99% of envenomation from venomous snakes in North America are from the pit viper or Crotalidae family. This family includes copperheads, cottonmouths, and all varieties of rattlesnakes. The Crotalidae snake toxin is a complex mixture of proteases that essentially causes tissue destruction. Bites from any of these snakes are treated the same way and share the same antivenom.
The other venomous snake in North America is from the Elapid family, the coral snake. The coral snake is only found in small pockets throughout NM, AZ, TX, and southeast states. The coral snake toxin affects the central nervous system and requires a different antivenom.
Approximately half of all venomous snake bites are “dry” – meaning the snake does not secrete any venom. When venom is injected, the amount varies considerably based on the area of contact, last feeding, and other factors. However, any time a firefighter is bitten by a snake, it should be assumed that it was a venomous snake, that a significant amount of venom was secreted, and they should be evacuated. Once at a hospital it can be determined what course of action is needed. Delaying treatment to determine the type of snake or if symptoms will develop may cause significant harm.
If bitten by a snake:
Assume it is venomous.
Do not try and catch or kill the snake. This often results in secondary bites.
Clean the area with mild soap and water if possible.
Keep the area below the level of the heart.
DO NOT tightly wrap the area or apply constrictive dressings.
Get transported to the nearest emergency department in a timely fashion.
In the emergency department the patient will be evaluated, and it will be determined if antivenom is necessary. Other treatments may include tetanus vaccination, antibiotics, and local wound care.
What dangerous snakes are found in the area you are working in now?
When your crew identifies a snake, what actions do you take to advise others and avoid contact?
- 10 & 18 Poster, PMS 110-18
- 10 Standard Firefighting Orders, PMS 110
- 18 Watch Out Situations, PMS 118
- Interagency Standards for Fire and Fire Aviation Operations (Red Book)
- NWCG Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG), PMS 461
- NWCG Standards for Helicopter Operations, PMS 510
- RT-130, Wildland Fire Safety Training Annual Refresher (WFSTAR)
- Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center
Have an idea or feedback?
Share it with the NWCG 6MFS Subcommittee.