It was the day after Veteran’s Day when I loaded up my car with vital supplies and started my long drive to help the people and animals affected by the deadliest wildfire on record in Northern California. As I headed toward the chaos, I watched the haze of smoke in the air thicken with each mile.
The so-called Camp Fire left Paradise, a town of 27,000, in ruins before it spread to the nearby city of Chico. People fled for their lives as they watched the flames move closer and closer to their homes. Some abandoned their cars and ran on foot because their tires had melted from the heat on the road. Some had their animals wrapped in their arms. Others said they had no time to grab their animals.
The fire was still raging and spreading when I strapped on my breathing mask to join Alley Cat Allies’ staff at a makeshift emergency cat evacuation shelter in Yuba City, just south of where the Camp Fire still burned. FieldHaven Feline Center, an animal protection organization usually busy being a Trap-Neuter-Return powerhouse in Yuba County, was running the shelter.
FieldHaven Founder and Executive Director Joy Smith was taking in dozens of cats, with many more expected. Joy was called in the middle of the night by the Yuba County Office of Emergency Services to rapidly set up the emergency shelter, as there was no prior accommodation for cats displaced by the fire. Some of the cats in the shelter were found wandering, lost, by concerned citizens. Others were brought in by heartbroken residents with nothing but the clothes on their backs after their homes burned to the ground. They couldn’t keep their beloved cats with them in many of the evacuation shelters.
My staff and I brought car loads of cat food, litter, blankets, bedding, cages, crates, carriers, toys, treats, and medical and cleaning supplies to help and comfort these cats. I also brought vegan snacks to fuel staff, volunteers, and evacuees—some of whom had been working round the clock amid the chaos. I provided guidance and support to Joy and her team and comforted some of the locals as they dropped off their animals.
Peggy was one of those locals. She was living in her car with her cat, Honey, and dog, Pug, for days since the fires destroyed her house in Paradise. After a valiant effort to keep her family together, Peggy was heartsick as she brought Honey to stay at the shelter. She didn’t know when she would be able to take Honey back, because she didn’t know when she would have a permanent roof over her head again.
The FieldHaven shelter, which is the Yuba County’s Sheriff’s Posse hall in normal times, looked like this: The women’s washroom was turned into a makeshift isolation room to keep cats with upper respiratory infections away from spreading disease to others. The rental hall was filled with supplies donated by generous people. The tables were lined with cages of cats, parakeets, and even an iguana.
After I rolled up my sleeves and hauled in bags of heavy supplies, I joined Joy in making calls to try and transfer in cats from an overwhelmed shelter in Oroville, California, several miles north and closer to Paradise. Then, I made my rounds through the space and gave advice on how to make the animals more comfortable: move the garbage away so they don’t have to smell it, talk with soft voices to keep them calm, keep the door closed so the smoke stays out, and other measures.
Through it all, I never forgot that the people in rescue sometimes need help just as much as the cats. My social worker training kicked in. I made sure staff and volunteers ate. I sat with Joy and talked through her plan to bring in much needed funds to offset these unexpected expenses and get the word out about the emergency shelter. I encouraged her to harness the power of social media and email requests for donations.
Joy is one of those rescuers who is juggling a dozen competing priorities each day to keep her programs afloat and generating the funds needed to keep going. The cats in those shelter cages are waiting for the day they could be with their families again and they need her help—and our help—now more than ever. Joy set up online donation and cat-finder pages because we knew desperate cat owners would be searching for their lost cats. Social media was vital and we needed to take advantage of it to help as many cats and families as we could.
As I stood in the smoky haze in California, I thought about communities across the country suffering in the aftermath of natural disasters. Alley Cat Allies is still helping local rescues care for animals after Hurricane Michael tore through the Florida Panhandle in October, leaving a path of destruction in its wake.
Because we never pick up the pieces from these disasters in a day, or a month, or even a year. It’s a slow process, and we at Alley Cat Allies are in it for the long haul. With supporters by our side, we will continue to help and guide communities, people, and animals as they navigate the rocky road to recovery.