Displaced Sonoma County residents keep up search for animals lost in fires

'I would rather lose my house than my cats and I imagine a lot of these people feel the same way,' said Jennifer Petruska, one of the volunteers helping to trap cats found wandering in fire-ravaged Coffey Park.|

Tins of dry kibble and drinking water line sidewalks in Coffey Park, where owners return each day in desperate searches for their pets missing since the Tubbs fire forced thousands of Santa Rosa residents to flee last month before leveling their homes.

Taylor Helm’s mother, sister, grandma and cousin had to race out the door about 2:30 a.m. Oct. 9, leaving their Holly Park Way home, and sadly, Yasmin, their 10-year-old cat, which had not returned before the family went to bed earlier that night. Amid the escape, she couldn’t be found.

Two-and-a-half weeks passed before Coffey Park reopened to residents, and Helm has ventured back to the neighborhood with cat food nearly every time she’s used the car.

“I’ve been back to what remains of our house at least every day, and gone at different times - morning, during the rain, at night, at dusk and I’ve gone midday,” she said.

“Every time I drive back to the house, I turn the corner and think that I’m going see her sitting on the front step like she always does and she isn’t there. So that’s hard.”

The story is similar for scores of other pet owners across Sonoma County, where the number of unresolved cases of missing animals after the fires is hard to pin down.

Estimates from a Facebook page dedicated to all of the lost pets across Sonoma and Napa counties range from 500 to 600.

The community’s assortment of shelters, including the Sonoma Humane Society, Sonoma County Animal Services, UC Davis veterinarian school and others quickly mobilized to streamline local efforts to reunite cats, dogs and other pets with their owners. The county shelter became the central location for fire-displaced pets, and their figures confirm the substantial need.

Intakes jumped roughly 50 percent in October, from 199 this same time last year to 298. And only halfway into November, the county shelter already has surpassed the total for the entire month in 2016.

Not all of those animals were fire-related displacements, but many were and that led authorities to extend hold periods from the usual four or 10 business days to a full month.

“No doubt, we saw significantly more animals in the last month or month and a half,” said Monica Argenti, Sonoma County Animal Services spokeswoman.

“In large part that is due to the fires - there’s no other explanation than that.”

Some 160 owners and their pets have been reunited through the shelter since the fires.

Those animals whose owners cannot be found will be put up for adoption through the shelter’s website. The facility was caring Tuesday for 20 fire-displaced cats and 12 dogs, plus another 10 animals that have been reclaimed but whose owners were using the shelter’s free boarding service while they searched for replacement housing.

For those still searching for their missing pets, Facebook groups, including the Sonoma & Napa Fires Missing and Found Pets page, act as digital bulletin boards, allowing regular updates for each new animal reported missing or found.

Helm’s message pegged near the top of the pet page Tuesday included a photo of Yasmin, the family’s mostly white cat, and a message for fellow followers.

“Please share, as I’m hoping those with homes still standing will keep an eye out for her!” Helm wrote.

On the Santa Rosa Firestorm Update group, another Coffey Park resident, Riz Gross, said her two cats, Dust and Charcoal, remained missing after the Tubbs fire.

“I was in the burn unit and haven’t been strong enough to go out and look myself,” Gross wrote on Tuesday. “Please help!”

A number of sympathetic residents also have stepped up to coordinate construction of temporary kennels so cats still wandering their neighborhoods can duck out of bad weather.

This past Sunday, through donations from Golden State Lumber, Home Depot and Walmart, volunteers spent the day building upwards of 200 of the plastic containers in the gym at Herbert Slater Middle School for distribution.

Others such as cat-owner Jennifer Petruska have volunteered with local groups like Forgotten Felines and accepted individual requests to trap cats throughout Coffey Park. Petruska said she’s caught at least a dozen, and also collaborated training for more amateur trappers to focus on parts of Fountaingrove, Bennett Ridge and Larkfield-Wikiup where many lost pets have been reported, according to social media posts.

“I would rather lose my house than my cats and I imagine a lot of these people feel the same way,” said Petruska, whose home was barely spared in the fire.

“The goal is to catch as many as we can. We’re having a lot of success so we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing.”

Sonoma County Animal Services is asking that trapped cats be left with the shelter so it can share photos and information about them through its network.

Petruska and a few others are on the lookout for Gross and Helm’s pets and many more lost in the Coffey Park neighborhood, where more than 1,300 homes were destroyed.

The message from local shelters is to keep looking. Cats are resilient, officials say, especially if they have access to food. That shred of hope is what keeps Helm heading back to her family’s property each day to search for Yasmin.

“Honestly, it would mean so much to our family right now,” she said.

“It’s easy to get discouraged with what’s going on in our community, but I’m reassured by so many people out there working, and seeing them has restored my faith. We’re not going to give up and will keep sharing her picture.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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