When I found Brutus he had severe burns to all four of his feet, along with his ears and tail. He had spent 26 days on his own following the 2017 Tubbs Wildfire in Sonoma County, California. Brutus and his sister, Cleo, whom I rescued 10 days later, were adopted by a close friend when the owners were unable to take them back. They are both healthy and living on a country property nearby where I sometimes visit them.
The wildfires that have ravaged the Northwest United States in recent years consumed homes and structures, took human souls and displaced thousands of animals. As a law enforcement officer I’ve not only witnessed the devastation first hand but I’ve worked to develop a system to rescue and reunify fire cats. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Cats really and truly have what it takes to survive these infernos. They are tough and can go for long periods of time without water. After the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise California, I rescued about 150 fire cats and reunited more than 50 with their families.
When folks are evacuated from wildfire burn zones it takes time, sometimes weeks, to gain access back in. On occasion, they may just find kitty living in the rubble or standing in the driveway when they arrive, but this is rare. Many cats are tough to find, but while they may run a distance to escape flames, they often return to their home areas. They have internal compasses that are uncanny and even when the entire neighborhood is gone, they may be close by. I rescued a fire cat named “Chester,” last year at the Camp Fire. He survived (with some help) for 224 days before I was able to finally rescue him and reunite him with his family.
Fire cats are displaced, frightened and their behavior changes dramatically. They become afraid of anything and everything, including their owner. It’s important not to assume your own cat or a target cat you are helping to locate and rescue is not present just because you’ve called out and searched many times.
When searching for fire cats, I do so late at night when all is quiet. I use a powerful flashlight to search homes and properties, quietly. When I see a cat, I’ll call it to see if it will come, but if not I don’t approach too closely as kitty may run off.
The best way to lure cats back in is with food and water. Canned mackerel works wonderfully. I use the juice from the mackerel to soak cut up rags to hang above the food areas, as it disperses scent for a long way off. I place bowls of wet/dry kibble near the mackerel-soaked rags along with bowls of water. Fire cats often don’t like being in the open so I place food stations along borders, walls, fences, near trees.
I keep returning to a property in the evenings before dark to place fresh food and water. The kitties may take days or even weeks to show up.
A trail camera or game camera is a vital tool to set up near the food station. It uses an invisible beam that triggers the camera to record video and pictures when a critter moves across the beam. The cameras help me find and identify kitties and see where they come and go.
If I find your kitty or another target kitty on camera, keep up the same routine for a few nights to get them accustomed to coming to the food. I want to try to get kitty into a pattern for when it comes time to trap. Often, they will arrive at a certain time each evening but sometimes it is random. I take note of what direction they come from and what direction they depart. When the cameras are set to video mode notice how the cat behaves at the feeding station. Does it drop its head for just a few seconds to eat then pop back up to look around, or does it appear more relaxed? How long does it stay? These observations tell me a cat’s current state of mind, whether It is being hypervigilant and on edge, or more relaxed. The hyper-vigilant cat is going to be much harder to rescue. Another overt sign is the cat that travels low to the ground.
Once I have a few days of a consistent pattern, it is time to get ready to trap. I place the trap near the food station but do not set it or put food in it. This should be in place for a night, maybe two, and will get the fire cat acclimated to the presence of something that wasn’t there before. I will often withhold food for one night before I plan to set the trap for real. It will often entice an otherwise wary cat into the trap. Once the trap is set, it is important to try and stay somewhat nearby and check the trap periodically. I carry a towel or blanket and when kitty is in a trap, gently cover the trap with a towel so it will calm the kitty down.
Once the cats get rescued, the incredibly difficult and complicated rescue efforts begin. In the fires I’ve worked, databases have been built by volunteers where families could list their missing felines. Once a fire cat is rescued, it is listed on the databases and “matchers” attempt to find their families.
Many of the fire cats I rescued had known families that were previously identified. They were immediately reunited unless kitty incurred injuries. In that case I immediately transported them to local emergency veterinarian hospitals for treatment.
In the case where there was no match at the time, the cats were listed on databases and fostered by volunteers or at shelters. In time, if a family did not step forward, the homeless fire cats were adopted with provisions that if the original family was identified, the adopter agreed to reunite kitties with them.
Many, many fire cats were adopted in the fires I worked. In fact, there are currently nine fire cats in residence at my home that I rescued and adopted when no families were found, or whose families were unable to take them back due to being homeless or in situations where they simply couldn’t have them.
Read Next: Helping Our Cats Through the Pandemic