Thousands of animals were dislodged by the Camp Fire. For some, it was a chance to start over

Burnee survived the camp fire and is living a comfortable life with his new family.
Burnee survived the camp fire and is living a comfortable life with his new family.

The deadliest wildfire in California history, the Camp Fire, began on Nov. 8, 2018. It destroyed nearly everything in its path before reaching 100 percent containment on Nov. 25, 2018.

About 90 percent of structures in Paradise were destroyed. About 27,000 people were forced to evacuate and 85 people died.

What happened to the animals in the area?

According to Peter Tira of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, “The instinctual flee response in a wildlife usually requires no human prodding or intervention. Fish and game rescued and rehabilitated injured wildlife found in or near the burn area including a starving, orphaned bear cub that was taken to the Fish and Game Laboratory in Rancho Cordova then transferred to the Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care Facility.” Named Paradise, the cub’s weight increased from 15 to 50 pounds. Successfully rehabilitated, the cub was released back to the wild.

Despite their flee response, supervising biologist Jason Holley with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, in a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle, guessed that hundreds of wild animals died in the fast-moving fire.

Lucky pet owners were able to take their pets with them as they evacuated only to find it most difficult to find temporary housing/shelter for themselves and their pets. Many other pet and livestock owners were unable to return to their homes for their animals.

According to North Valley Animal Disaster Group President Norm Rosene, “Working with Butte County Animal Control, NVADG (with a membership of 300 volunteers) was the first of many mutual aid partners to arrive on the scene and help with the evacuation and sheltering of thousands of animals during the Camp Fire and its aftermath. At the peak of the disaster, 500 people worked to aid animals each day.”

NVADG board member Debbie Mueller added, “We facilitated the evacuation of 4,000 animals and the care of 6,000 more (mostly cows, donkeys, horses, pigs, birds and some pets) who were sheltered-in-place. We’re trained to go behind fire lines and equipped with protective clothes and Cal Fire radios to do so.”

Butte Humane Society Executive Director Katrina Woodcox applauds NVADG’s efforts.

“They were the boots on the ground removing animals from danger,” Woodcox said. “After NVADG’s initial efforts, many other groups offered their help.”

More than eight months after the fire, Butte Humane Society continues to aid animals.

“Our pet food pantry will remain open until November. We provide pet food, litter, and cat and dog beds. We also offer free health exams and shots,” Woodcox said of the effort to help furry Camp Fire victims.

Efforts to reunite animals with their owners have been ongoing. Photos of missing pets have appeared on Facebook. Animals who were evacuated and sheltered were not adoptable for at least 30 days after being placed in a shelter, giving the original owners time to find them.

Months after the Camp Fire, many animals remained unidentified and unclaimed. Among them were a number of cats that were presumably homeless before the fire.

Tamara Thayer, the principal officer of Top Cats on the Ridge, says her group has been serving the Paradise area with a trap-neuter-return program since 2005. In the past 14 years, they’ve neutered 4,000 cats and found homes for 450 cats and kittens.

Finally, the silver lining: many homeless cats were trapped, treated and sheltered. Having no owners to return to, they became adoptable. For some, this was an opportunity to return to home life after years on their own and for others, the first chance at having a forever home.

One such happy ending came for Burnee, a petite young tabby rescued Nov. 24 by Paradise Animal Control. She was found in a tree, paws and ears burned, dehydrated and starving. She weighed only 4½ pounds.

Taken to Del Oro Shelter, she was further evaluated. Her whiskers were singed and curled, and there was urine on her singed coat. She could walk but all four paws needed to be cleaned and bandaged. She was given antibiotics and pain medication.

On Nov. 25, she was transferred to the Valley Oak VCA in Chico. This VCA hospital took in over 500 Camp Fire animals. Because of the overflow of patients at this veterinary hospital, 60 animals were transferred to sister VCA hospitals and offered long-term care. Fifteen cats came to the VCA Sacramento Veterinary Referral Center. Burnee arrived at the Sacramento hospital Nov. 26.

Lisa Grivich runs the pharmacy at the veterinary hospital. The day after Burnee arrived, Lisa heard her meowing.

“I saw these gorgeous golden eyes staring at me and knew I wanted this cat,” Grivich said.

Her lunches were spent with Burnee and their bond was mutual. While Burnee was known to hiss and resist her bandage changes, she was always friendly and affectionate with Grivich. She also got to know Grivich’s husband, Kevin, when he visited. Burnee’s special purr for her new friends was a cross between a coo and a warbling trill. It reached a higher note when her daily treats were offered.

Receiving fluids and plenty of food, Burnee put on much-needed weight and became more active. Though her paws recovered, she would lose both ear tips, making her look like a Scottish Fold.

Though she was not adoptable right away, the Griviches were allowed to foster her when she was released from the hospital.

Her transition to indoor life had a few hiccups but the Griviches were prepared. They placed a giant dog crate in their room with litter, bedding, food and water, but Burnee couldn’t stand to be contained. After blocking the bottom of their bed so she couldn’t hide, they let her roam their room freely. Finally, they gave her access to the whole house.

Their other cat, Little Blackbird, didn’t want Burnee to return to Kevin and Lisa’s room. When Burnee insisted on re-entering the room, Little Blackbird kept her off their bed.

As time passed, Little Blackbird and Burnee became friends, cuddling or sharing a cat bed. Burnee enjoys the double cat tree Kevin put together and the window hammock facing the backyard fountain.

Burnee is a bit of a busybody and very curious about what anyone is doing. She can make a toy out of anything and has made a habit of attacking toilet paper and paper towel rolls, as well as Kleenex. The bathroom door remains closed now, the paper towels are encased in a metal holder and the box of Kleenex sits above the refrigerator. No problem, there are plenty of other toys for her to play with.

When Burnee was released for adoption, she didn’t have to move. Her foster folks are now her official pet parents. Once dubbed a brown tabby with a rough singed coat, her now clean, regrown fur is a soft pale grey with darker Bengal markings. The curled, crispy whiskers are again long and straight. The ears, having lost their tips, give her an exotic look. She’s gone from starving to a fluffy 10 pounds of energy.

The Camp Fire brought so much destruction. Yet for Burnee, and other homeless cats, it offered a chance to start over, to be cared for and loved.