Volunteers reunite 300 lost Sonoma County ‘fire cats’ with families

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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

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.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Since October, Johnson and Basque believe they’ve caught about 30 fire cats each. Both women own several cats and Johnson has even adopted two fire cats, Wikiup and Mister, and fosters another fire cat, Mimi. Mimi’s owner lost her house in the fire and is unable to have a cat in her temporary, rented home.

“I’m happy to have Mimi. After all the chasing, I kind of fell in love with her,” Johnson said.

Most fire cats they’ve worked with have been caught close to their original homesites but the challenge became finding the owners who had taken up other living situations, even with the help of the Facebook group.

“I think people just think they (the cats) perished and don’t want to hope that they’re alive,” Johnson said.

“Most of the people I talk to assumed their pet was dead,” Basque added.

That was what Piner High School teacher Zoe Miller, 46, thought when she returned to her burned down-homesite after the fires.

Miller left her home on Carriage Lane in the Larkfield-Wikiup area with her husband, two sons and two dogs. They had about 10 minutes to get organized and leave. But their steel gray cat, Andy, was nowhere to be found.

They checked under the bed and called for her around the house. Her youngest son, Nicholas, 11, thought he may have heard her on the roof.

But they didn’t see her, and there wasn’t time.

Like many other fire victims, they left and hoped for the best.

When they came back after the fires, their house was burned down and there was no trace of Andy.

They posted to fire victims Facebook groups. A few found cats were mistaken for Andy. A couple of months passed by.

“We thought she was gone,” Miller said, adding that they considered Andy a part of their family after her older son, Duncan, 14, had picked out Andy from an animal shelter a few years earlier.

And then one night, 65 days after the wildfires, Miller’s phone lit up with missed calls and messages.

Ellen Johnson had found Andy in a trap outside Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital about 2 miles from their homesite — the furthest distance they’ve caught a cat from its home, she said. The Miller family joyously picked Andy up from Johnson’s house.

“It was great. It was awesome. We cried. We got a little crazy with the cat toys,” Miller said.

When Andy was found, she was a little thin. But she’s gained a substantial amount of weight in the last six months.

“The vet says she’s fat now,” Miller said proudly.

Miller credited the pet rescue group for bringing a member of her family back home, and she said she’s grateful for Johnson’s efforts.

“What Ellen was doing was amazing,” Miller said. “Everyone was out scouring for everyone’s cats. It made you feel really special, like everyone was going to help you find your pet. It made us feel proud to be a part of this community.”

Near Riebli Road, Penny Dolan, 49, was missing her four cats after the fires.

Two of the cats — Robbie and Nidnoy — were quickly found by rescuers, although Nidnoy, named after the Thai word for little, suffered some burns and, like many other pet with fire injuries, was taken to UC Davis Veterinary Hospital for treatment.

Her neighbor then put out food and a night camera, and the footage was shared with anyone nearby looking for their pets.

Three weeks after the fire, Dolan saw an elderly, slow-moving gray tabby on the camera’s footage. She was certain it was her 17-year-old cat, Singtoe.

“Night time camera is really hard to identify because everything is gray,” Dolan said. “But I recognized the way he walked.”

Dolan called Becky Basque to set up a trap by the food and camera on her neighbor’s property. She also left some cat food out under her chicken coops. (Her largest of three chicken coops — with 65 egg-laying hens inside — burned down in the wildfire.)

Another three weeks went by, and still no Singtoe. So, the trap was moved from her neighbor’s place to her own property, near a culvert drain pipe.

Five hours after the trap was placed there, in the late evening, Singtoe was caught. Just a week later, 4-year-old Scrappy, her other missing cat, was also caught.

“Cats, they say, have nine lives. They can take care of themselves. It’s just a matter of time,” Dolan said. “It’s a happy story.”

The Sonoma & Napa Fires Pet Rescue and Reunification group partnered with Wine Country Animal Lovers and Forgotten Felines. WCAL provides supplies and matched and funneled donations. Forgotten Felines takes in unclaimed cats and adopts them out.

“If there is another catastrophic event,” Shapley said. “We are ready to go.”

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or

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