Benefield: ‘Fire Cats’ film about Tubbs, Camp Fires rescues screens Sunday
Katharine Parsons was on her computer approximately 2,200 miles from Santa Rosa when the Tubbs Fire broke out in October 2017.
Her social media feeds, mostly Facebook, started exploding with images of devastation — fire, leveled neighborhoods, ash, smoke.
But then there was devastation of a different kind. She started seeing people posting pictures of their pets. Dogs that couldn’t be corralled during terrifying evacuations. Cats that disappeared as owners fled the flames.
“Photographs just flooded social media,” said Parsons, a screenwriter based in Toronto.
Parsons wanted to help.
She joined with others, strangers mostly, trying to link images of animals with their frantically searching owners.
“I ended up doing some detective work and helping reunite” animals with owners, she said. “Basically I didn’t leave my computer for three weeks.”
But as she saw an entire community rally for animals and their people, Parsons thought she could do more than connect animals with owners. She wanted to tell their stories.
“I became very attached to this whole community of animal rescuers and fire families,” she said. “My nature is that of a researcher. I dug really deep into the story.”
Parsons launched a documentary project and “The Fire Cats — Find Something Small” was born.
“I said, there’s a story here about the rescuers and people who had given up all hope,” she said.
She documented the work of now-retired National Park Service officer Shannon Jay, of Forestville, who worked nights using nonlethal trapping techniques to rescue cats he found in storm drains, in rubble or in shells of burned cars.
In some cases, he found animals weeks after the fire.
“Everything I learned about cats was absolutely shocking and wonderful at the same time,” Parsons said.
She brought in a crew, a cinematographer, an assistant director and started filming.
“I thought it was going to be a short,” she said.
She was in postproduction work on “The Fire Cats” when the Camp Fire leveled the town of Paradise in Butte County 13 months after the Tubbs Fire.
All of the rescuers she came to know from the Tubbs Fire headed north. So, Parsons turned her attention there too.
But the coordination and cooperation Parsons said she witnessed in Sonoma County was nowhere to be found in Butte County in the aftermath of the Camp Fire, she said.
“There were cats that starved to death, that is documented, waiting for rescue,” she said.
The culprit in many cases, Parsons said, was infighting, jealousy and territorialism among those charged with caring for animals in emergencies.
Parsons said she saw trained volunteers being sidelined, essentially prevented from helping animals in the burn zone.
“There were hundreds of people who were trying to get in who were prevented by barricades,” she said.
Parsons documented what she felt were distinct differences between how Sonoma County officials handled animal rescue and that which unfolded in Butte County.
“I think (officials in Butte County), unlike Sonoma County, were upside-down where they did not know how to ask for help, did not know how to marshal help,” she said. “There was no system in place.”
Parsons, for one, thinks the Butte County response should be investigated.
“After every disaster, we should be able to say, ‘How can we do better?’” she said.
“The Paradise story is really ugly, but also beautiful in the sense that you had people like Joy setting up shelter,” she said. “She stayed there for months.”
“Joy” is Joy Smith, executive director of FieldHaven Feline Center in Lincoln.
Smith, along with Forgotten Felines of Sonoma County Executive Director Pip Marquez de la Plata, and Jay, the cat rescuer who lives in Forestville, feature prominently in Parsons’ final project.
“The Fire Cats — Save Something Small” will screen twice Sunday at Rialto Cinemas in Sebastopol as a fundraiser for Forgotten Felines and FieldHaven.
Parsons, Smith, Marquez de la Plata and Jay will be part of a panel discussion following both screenings.
The first show is sold-out.
Parsons said while scenes in the documentary can feel harrowing, especially for those who lived through the wildfires, she looks forward to watching the films with a community that experienced it.
“I think it’s going to be a very healing for them. It’s not a disaster movie, it’s an inspirational movie,” she said. “There’s nothing like crying in the dark with a bunch of people who know how you feel.”
You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @benefield.
Columnist, The Press Democrat
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