3rd Anniversary: Looking Back at 220 Days Saving the Camp Fire Cats

3rd Anniversary: Looking Back at 220 Days Saving the Camp Fire Cats

The third anniversary of the devastating Camp Fire on Monday brings up strong emotions for Joy Smith, executive director of FieldHaven Feline Center.

Joy Smith captures a cat roaming lost in Paradise among the devastation of the Camp Fire in 2018.

“What started out as a sheltering, rescue and recovery mission for the cats quickly moved into a humanitarian mission for the people as well,” said Joy Smith, FieldHaven executive director.

She and a team of FieldHaven’s staff and volunteers 220 days spent finding, saving and caring for the cats displaced by the disaster – and often their people. “It was FieldHaven’s honor to help people who had lost everything in an instant to navigate the challenge of searching for their lost cats, reuniting them and grieving for those who weren’t found,” Smith said.

Their work is highlighted in a new documentary by Director Katharine Parsons titled The Fire Cats, which is expected to premiere next year at a number of film festivals. The film features Smith’s early deployment at the Camp Fire, her long presence on site, and her work diagnosing and treating PTSD in cats and reuniting cats with their families.

“As a documentary filmmaker already at work on the fire cat rescues after the Tubbs Fire, I was aware that the vast majority of pets who go missing after a wildfire are cats,” Parsons said. “Not only was Joy Smith the only person who arrived on scene with decades of feline rescue and sheltering experience, but she also harnessed the power of citizen volunteers to create one of the Camp Fire’s success stories.”

At 10:30 PM on November 8, 2018, the Northern California cat shelter based in Lincoln received a call from the Yuba County Office of Emergency Services asking if it could establish a sheltering facility for cats to help evacuees from the raging Camp Fire. Seven months and five days later, FieldHaven ended its Camp Fire response program.

“Disasters are scary and stressful for animals and their humans,” said Briana Haberman, former Yuba County Emergency Operations Manager. “FieldHaven provided a level of emergency sheltering and veterinary care with compassion that should be considered a standard within the industry.”

With a core team, Smith spent months living without running water in the heart of the disaster zone searching for cats, supported by donations and funding from the national advocacy group Alley Cat Allies. FieldHaven’s staff and volunteers set up an intricate system of hundreds of feeding stations to humanely trap cats, many of whom had never spent any extended time outside and now had to find food and water to survive.

FieldHaven ended up caring for 641 cats displaced by the Camp Fire. About 95 percent had no microchip to connect them with an owner, but FieldHaven managed to reunite 142 cats with their people. It found new homes with the help of partner organizations for 353, spayed or neutered and returned 124 feral cats to their home areas, 14 cats were given a permanent home at FieldHaven’s sanctuary, and eight died.

“Emotions were so raw and at the top of every interaction during the Camp Fire,” Smith said. “Those feelings of kindness and compassion are something I will carry with me the rest of my life.”

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