‘Something beautiful amid total disaster.’ The Camp Fire and the salvation of London the cat

My thoughts and dreams are filled with burned animals.

I keep seeing the burned, blind eyes of a raccoon I killed Thursday to end its suffering as the Camp Fire raged. I hear the terrified howls from a singed cat I found Sunday and helped reunite with her owner who had to leave her behind as their Paradise neighborhood burned.

Days later, the smell of burned animal hair won’t leave my nose.

On Thursday, Sacramento Bee photographer Hector Amezcua and I had just made it into Paradise as the Camp Fire chewed through town. Buildings were on fire all around us. The air was orange. We could taste the wood, the melting plastic and the scorched metal under our face masks, even inside our SUV.

We had heard the hospital was on fire, and we were making our way to it through the skeletons of melted cars, fallen smoldering tree limbs and downed power lines when we saw an animal trying to walk, bow legged, on burned feet along one of the streets. Its hair was gone and its flanks were burned.

“Is that a cat?” Hector said. “The poor baby.”

“That’s a raccoon,” I said.

I’m a hunter. I know a dying animal when I see it. No one was coming to help. It couldn’t see, and there was no water to drink or to soothe its torched skin.

I had no gun, so I grabbed my full metal water bottle to use as a club. I took out my pocket knife.

With tears welling up, I walked over and looked into its seared, nearly-dead eyes.

“I’m so sorry, buddy,” I said quietly. Seconds later, the raccoon was dead, and Hector and I were back on the road. We didn’t know it at the time, but our route took us past the husks of cars where people had burned to death just a few hours earlier.

I’ve covered Northern California’s wildfires for much of my 15 years as a journalist. There are memories I’ll never forget, from the unpleasant to the terrifying to the surreal to the haunting.

I’ve been swarmed by biting beetles attracted to the smell of wildfire smoke, hoping to lay their eggs in the damaged timber. I’ve laughed at the sight of two bored cops at a fire check point wearing smoke masks as they cooked burritos on the exhaust manifold of their patrol SUV’s engine. I’ve run to my car as embers rained down around me. I’ve been spattered with pink fire retardant as air tankers dumped their loads on homes with flames raging toward them through the underbrush. I’ve fought back tears at the gulping baritone sobs of a man who just got confirmation that his wife and two grandchildren had burned to death.

But it’s the burned animals that most haunt my memories.

A rat, scorched nose to tail, once crawled out of a burning home and flopped on its side in a firefighter’s boot print filled with water from the hoses. It looked up at me with confusion and pain in its eyes before it died at my feet. I’ve seen a doe, her side scorched and her back covered in soot, grazing seemingly serenely in the green lawn of a home that burned to its foundation days earlier. A burned dead squirrel was on the ground next to me other day when I hit “share” on an Instagram video of a search and rescue team combing through the ruins of a trailer park looking for bodies.

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Lyn Martin holds her cat, London, after being reunited with the cat Sunday after Sacramento Bee reporter Ryan Sabalow found it while reporting on the Camp Fire in Paradise and brought it to Chico. Courtesy of Christopher Martin

Sunday brought a bright light to these dark animal images bouncing around my head.

That afternoon, I was driving down Pentz Road in Paradise looking for cell phone reception to send a video and do some writing when I spotted the silhouette of a cat’s ears poking out from under one of the few unburned cars I passed. I hit the brakes.

I belly-crawled under the car and saw a calico with striking blue eyes. Her hair on one side was singed down to the skin. Her whiskers were burned down to pitiful little nubs. I tried to coax her out with water in the bowl I keep in my pickup for my hunting dog, Gaddy. The cat likely had gone without water for days, but she came to my outstretched hand instead, seeking a human’s comforting touch after days of terror and pain. I grabbed her by the nape of her neck and pulled her out. I carried her in my arms to my truck. She smelled terrible.

“I’ll get you home,” I told her as she howled.

I posted a video of the cat on Twitter, and I raced her to Chico where I dropped her off at the VCA Valley Oak Veterinary Center. There, animal control workers were dropping off badly burned dogs and cats. Inside, families who frantically escaped their burning neighborhoods and had no choice but to leave pets behind were leafing through a binder filled with pictures of found animals. Many left with tears in their eyes, their search fruitless.

Thankfully, my post was shared on social media and Lyn Martin spotted it on a Facebook group for lost fire pets. I met her and her husband, Christopher, later that day in Chico. They lost their home off Pentz Road near where I found their cat. They told me her name is London. That evening, Lyn sent me a photo of London in her arms, her foot wrapped in a bandage. They tell me she was purring. The couple took her to the Chico apartment where they’re staying temporarily. They think she’ll recover.

“Something beautiful amid total disaster,” Christopher told me over Facebook, though he says the couple is still missing two of their cats.

I hope they find them. I hope all the fire victims do.

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