Skittishly, they wander through the night and hide in dark corners during the day in what has become a desperate and solitary way of life. And if these nicknamed “fire cats” are lucky, the scent of mackerel or tuna may lead them into a humane trap, where they’re picked up by one of the 100 volunteers of the Sonoma & Napa Fires Pet Rescue and Reunification group, which has reunited about 300 cats with their families to date.
“Our pets mean the world to us. That’s what motivates us to check traps, refill food,” said Becky Shapley, the group’s co-founder and head organizer. “It’s hugely rewarding. You can’t put a price on a pet’s life.”
In the first three months after wildfires burned down 5,283 Sonoma County homes, the pet rescue group was catching at least 20 cats a week, many at feeding stations and traps set out on every street in developed areas like Santa Rosa’s heavily affected Coffey Park. These days, with the remaining fire cats adapting to life outside, often in more rural areas like Fountaingrove or Larkfield-Wikiup, the volunteers are lucky to catch one a week, Shapley said.
In the countryside, volunteers may have to drive a half-hour to check feeding stations and the traps they set — often in the evening and at night, when they’re more likely to catch nocturnal felines who have become elusive from eight months of living without a home.
That’s what volunteers like Becky Basque, 57, and Ellen Johnson, 53, continue to do. Johnson volunteers in the Larkfield-Wikiup area, and Basque works in the Riebli-Wallace area.
They bait the traps with cat-aromatic tuna or sardines, and handle them with a sock soaked in tuna or mackerel juice to prevent their own scent from getting on the traps. The metal traps they use are lined with cardboard on the bottom. When a cat enters to sample the food and steps on a trigger plate, the door shuts.
Cameras are set up by the feeding stations they check regularly. Sometimes wildlife gets accidentally trapped, which they release.
For the two women, both cat lovers born in Healdsburg, volunteering to find fire cats also meant finding a new friendship. Some of the areas they searched in overlapped, so Basque invited Johnson to a group dinner for area volunteers. They hit it off, and after that began searching for lost fire cats together.
They weren’t the only ones to meet as fire cat rescuers. A few weeks after the October wildfires, Shapley met Santa Rosa resident Jennifer Petruska, who set up dozens of feeding stations in Coffey Park when she realized that many cats were left behind in the rush and panic of evacuations. Soon, an informal, but dedicated group was underway.
“We’re not a nonprofit; we’re not official; we’re just a group of volunteers,” said Shapley, a horse owner who lives near Coddingtown Mall.
It’s a love of animals and gratification of reuniting pets with their owners that keep the volunteers going. And to give something back to the fire victims who have lost so much.
“We’d tell them, ‘You worry about the other stuff in your life, we’ll worry about your cats,’ ” Johnson said.