Pets, own­ers re­united af­ter Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires

Tri-City Herald (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY AMANDA LEE MY­ERS

Em­bers fall­ing on their heads, Ve­nesa Rhodes and her hus­band had sec­onds to rush their two beloved cats into their SUV be­fore a wild­fire last sum­mer would over­take them all.

One cat got in. But the other, named Bella, bolted and dis­ap­peared as the blaze bore down. The cou­ple had no choice but to flee, and their home and much of the neigh­bor­hood in Red­ding, Cal­i­for­nia, soon was re­duced to ash.

Rhodes and her hus­band, Stephen Cobb, pre­sumed Bella was dead. Dev­as­tated by their losses, they moved 1,800 miles to Rhodes’ home­town of An­chor­age, Alaska, to start over.

Nearly six weeks later, they got a call that left them gob­s­macked: Bella was alive. Vol­un­teers had put out a feed­ing sta­tion at Rhodes’ burned-out prop­erty, staked it out af­ter spot­ting the cat, and then trapped her.

“I started bawl­ing,” Rhodes said from An­chor­age, where Bella was curled up in a cor­ner sleep­ing. “We were shocked. We were just so over­joyed and just hop­ing she was OK.”

Rhodes and Cobb are among dozens of peo­ple who lost their homes in the deadly Carr Fire but had their lives bright­ened weeks or months later when their pets were found.

A net­work of about 35 vol­un­teers – called Carr Fire Pet Res­cue and Re­uni­fi­ca­tion – is re­spon­si­ble for many of the happy end­ings, which con­tinue more than two months af­ter fire­fight­ers ex­tin­guished the blaze, which de­stroyed more than 1,000 homes and killed six peo­ple.

The group formed with the help of an­other vol­un­teer an­i­mal group born out of the dev­as­tat­ing Tubbs Fire, which killed at least 22 peo­ple and de­stroyed thou­sands of homes last year in wine coun­try north of San Fran­cisco.

Robin Bray, a field co­or­di­na­tor for the Carr Fire group, said about 80 pets have been re­united with their fam­i­lies us­ing so­cial me­dia and spe­cially made kiosks in Red­ding where images of found pets are posted. Most are cats that have “been through hell,” she said.

Bray said each new re­u­nion fu­els her and the other vol­un­teers, many of whom use their own money to trap and treat the an­i­mals.

“We’ve seen amaz­ing things,” Bray said. “We’re find­ing cats that were in a house and the own­ers pre­sumed they had passed. The heat of fire breaks win­dows in houses and cats jump out and run and hide. They’re sur­vival­ists.”

The vol­un­teers go to elab­o­rate lengths to catch the an­i­mals, which of­ten are trau­ma­tized and in­jured. Equipped with night-


Robin Bray, field co­or­di­na­tor for Carr Fire Pet Res­cue and Re­uni­fi­ca­tion

vi­sion cam­eras, traps and lots of food for bait, the vol­un­teers stake out an area where a miss­ing pet has been spot­ted, wait­ing for the right mo­ment to drop a trap.

They won a hard-fought res­cue of a dog nick­named Buddy on Oct. 27 af­ter he had eluded cap­ture for weeks. They tried lur­ing him with steak and french fries, an­other dog and a pickup truck like the one his owner drove be­fore fi­nally nab­bing him.

It was a two-woman, two-hour op­er­a­tion. One woman crawled on the ground and placed food un­der a trap and the other waited in a truck and pulled a rope to com­plete the cap­ture.

Bray, a pri­vate pilot by day, once spent nearly seven hours trap­ping a cat. The wait was worth it, she said.

“So many of these peo­ple have lost ev­ery­thing,” Bray said. “The only thing they care about is find­ing their pet that they love. They want that hope back in their lives and we’re try­ing to pro­vide that.”

Jes­sica Pierce, a Lyons, Colorado-based bioethi­cist who stud­ies end-oflife is­sues in­volv­ing hu­mans and their pets, said los­ing a beloved an­i­mal and a home is a dou­ble whammy of grief.

“To then be re­united with a pet you thought was gone, that would be like get­ting a piece of your

home back,” she said. “For many peo­ple, pets are a sense of home, and they iden­tify home with a sense of com­fort and peace.”

Steve and Su­san Cor­topassi were re­united with their cat, Big Ernie, on Oct. 3, more than two months af­ter the fire started. Their other cat, Elsa, was found about three weeks af­ter the fire, which de­stroyed their home of 30 years.

The Cor­topas­sis had to evac­u­ate in the mid­dle of the night. They grabbed their two dogs but weren’t able to track down the cats. A friend showed Cor­topassi cell­phone video of her de­stroyed home a cou­ple days af­ter the fire and she fig­ured the cats were gone for­ever.

“It was just com­plete and ut­ter dev­as­ta­tion,”

she said. “It’s just a mir­a­cle they’re alive. It’s like, life finds a way.”

Rhodes got her call on Sept. 2, 41 days af­ter the fire be­gan. Bella, who is 2, had some burns on her belly, her long black hair was singed to medium length and she was un­der­weight. Her formerly gray paws are now per­ma­nently pink.

When she was found, Rhodes and Cobb drove to Red­ding over five days with their other cat, Mama, so the whole fam­ily could be re­united. Af­ter stay­ing in a ho­tel for an­other five days to make sure Bella was OK, the whole fam­ily re­turned to Alaska.

“We have friends that don’t even like cats think­ing how crazy we were and we just said, ‘They’re part of our fam­ily,’ ” Rhodes said.


Su­san Cor­topassi holds her cat, Big Ernie, af­ter the pair were re­united last sum­mer. They had been sep­a­rated in the Carr Fire in Red­ding, Calif., and Cor­topassi had thought Big Ernie was killed in the fire. The Cor­topas­sis’ other cat, Elsa, was found about three weeks af­ter the fire.

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