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Partial Thickness Leg Burns in Little Yosemite Valley

July 21, 2012 Posted by: Yosemite Search and Rescue

At about 8:45 a.m. on Friday, July 6, a 52 year-old female backpacker staying in the Little Yosemite Valley backpacker's campground suffered partial thickness burns (2nd degree burns) to both her legs. After eating breakfast, the subject and her fellow backpackers prepared to wash their dishes by bringing a pot of water to boil. The group was using a single-burner backpacking stove, placed on top of a low stump. The pot of boiling water was accidentally spilled on the subject's legs, causing partial thickness burns to the subject's entire right knee and an estimated two-thirds of the circumference of the subject's left calf.  Unfortunately, this incident was not a singular event this summer; multiple cases of burns occurring in park campgrounds have been treated at the Yosemite Medical Clinic. 

Placing a camp stove on a secure and unmovable surface and being careful when moving hot items to and from the stove are two tips to keep in mind to avoid accidents. Additionally, heightened vigilance when children are near camp stoves and campfire rings is critical-in the morning, children will often approach a campfire ring that appears innocuous, only to plunge their hands in the ashes and be burned by hot embers from the previous night's fire.

The subject suffering burns at Little Yosemite Valley waded waist-deep in the Merced River, where she stood in the water for approximately 20 minutes to stop the burning. When NPS rescuers arrived on scene, the subject's body temperature had dropped to 95.4°F and the skin associated with the burns had sloughed off. Using the rule of palms, rescuers estimated that 8% of the subject's body had been burned. The subject's wounds were irrigated and wrapped in dry gauze, and the subject was flown by helicopter out of the backcountry to the NPS helibase at Crane Flat, where she was transferred to an ambulance and transported to Sonora Regional Medical Center.

6 Comments Comments Icon

  1. Yosemite National Park
    August 02, 2012 at 03:12

    Immediate cooling is a mainstay of initial burn management, and typically needs to occur withing 30 minutes of injury to have benefit. Water temperatures of ~36-60°F are considered optimal, but ice water or ice is not advised as the colder temperature (~32°F) can worsen tissue damage. We don't have a temperature measurement of the Merced River at that location, but it probably fell in the ideal range. Hypothermia is always a concern, particularly if larger body surface area (>20%) is being cooled, and judging from this patient's initial temperature she may have been heading in that direction. Duration of cooling is typically 20-30 minutes. Of course with any burn there is risk of infection, so if the water source at hand is likely to be contaminated then contact probably not advisable, but I think the Merced is relatively clean and free of microbes likely to cause a wound/skin infection. So on the whole, it seems like benefits outweighed risks in this case and taking the plunge was a reasonable thing to do.

  2. Ben - San Francisco, CA
    August 01, 2012 at 08:32

    Any comment on whether standing in the river was a wise course of action?

  3. Yosemite National Park
    July 27, 2012 at 06:44

    @Mark, the medical community uses "partial thickness burn" rather than 2nd-degree burn. (A 1st-degree burn is referred to as a superficial burn while a 3rd-degree burn is referred to as a full-thickness burn). These terms are more descriptive. Of course, we should've defined it in the original post (we did edit the post after your comment).

  4. Wilson
    July 27, 2012 at 10:00

    Why don't they just say "2nd degree burns"?

  5. Kirk
    July 22, 2012 at 02:53

    I had to google it myself. It is another term for second degree burn. So pretty nasty.

  6. Mark - Birmingham, Alabama
    July 22, 2012 at 12:45

    What is partial thickness burns?


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