On the morning of November 8, certified veterinary assistant Samet Kaplan left his three-bedroom mountain home in Magalia, California, for the 30-minute drive to work at the Chico Hospital for Cats. The sky was cloudless and blue.
“But just as I reached downtown Chico, I looked in the rearview mirror and all I saw was black smoke,” said Kaplan. “I knew I needed to go back home immediately to save our cats and tortoise.”
Acting quickly, he filled up his car’s tank at a Chico gas station, picked up his wife, Laurie from her job, and purposely avoided the already crowded main road by navigating the narrow, winding gravel road back to Magalia.
“Around here, we are used to temporary evacuations, but this time, the whole town of Paradise was under evacuation as well as lower Magalia where our cabin home is,” he said.
They arrived back to their home at 9 a.m., but it seemed like dusk with the smoke-filled sky. They had just bought this home on a cul-de-sac 18 months earlier – their first home together.
“One look at the sky and I knew we would be losing our home,” he said.
During the drive, they came up with a game plan. Laurie was to evacuate Marge, their 89-year-old next-door neighbor while Samet grabbed a file of important house papers in their house and calmly rounded up their four cats into carriers.
Trained in Fear Free handling at the Chico Hospital for Cats where he works with veterinarian Elizabeth Colleran, Samet knew that his cats would be tuned into his emotional state. So he took a calming breath and walked into the front door casually, calling to his feline foursome in a friendly manner to join him in the kitchen for bowls of canned food.
“I was purposely sticking to the routine I do each time I come home instead of panicking, running into the house, and slamming doors – that would only scare the cats who may try to dash and hide. I knew we only had minutes to get them.”
As Figaro, China, Honey, and Mr. Kitty ate in the kitchen, Samet quietly retrieved their carriers from the garage and placed them on the bed in the master bedroom. One by one, he gently picked up each cat at their food bowls and placed each in separate carriers. Then he placed his tortoise, Papyon, in a shoe box and grabbed the house files that included their passports.
Stepping outside, he saw his panicked wife banging on Marge’s front door and calling her name. He knew Marge was inside. He joined Laurie in banging on windows and yelling for Marge. Finally, 15 minutes later, a sleepy Marge opened the door barefoot and looking perplexed.
“Put your socks on, Marge,” he told her. “The fire is coming. We have to go now!”
Samet knew Marge had two cats – one friendly and one skittish. He managed to easily get the first in a pet carrier, but had to use a flashlight to find the second one hiding in the darkest spot of Marge’s bedroom closet. Working with his wife, they positioned the pet carrier with the open door facing the closet to lure the scared cat safely inside.
Samet gave one last look at his house. By now, the sky was raining ash.
“I knew the fire and wind were coming our way and we had to leave right now or be trapped.”
It took them seven hours to reach Chico, a drive that normally takes 30 minutes. It was 5:30 p.m. when he arrived back to the Chico Hospital for Cats. He joined his colleagues as they began taking in cats from desperate residents who had to evacuate their homes, but had no place willing to let them bring their cats.
“It was crazy for sure,” he said. “People were sleeping in their cars and within a few days after the fire hit, we ended up taking in more than 60 cats, plus our regular boarders. But we got creative in the use of space inside our hospital and were able to put cats in enclosures everywhere, including the grooming room and storage room.”
He added, “Unfortunately, cats are not like dogs where you can put them on leashes and expect them to be calm and right by your side at a disaster-relief shelter. The noise and stress in those shelters could be too much for many cats. Our hospital provided these cats with a quiet place to be safe and with no risk of escaping.”
The staff spoke in quiet voices and plugged in pheromone-appeasing Feliway products to help calm their feline guests.
Three days after the Camp Fire struck, Samet celebrated his 34th birthday by working a long weekend shift at the cat hospital. The staff rotated performing needed chores: feeding the 60-plus cats, washing food and water bowls, doing piles of laundry, and scooping and cleaning litter boxes.
“A nearby emergency animal clinic was taking displaced dogs and pets with burn injuries while we became the boarding place for cats,” he said.
Samet and the Chico staff assessed each cat, based on their body cues and vocalizations when approaching them in their enclosures. Cats displaying fear or aggression with flattened ears, dilated pupils, and hissing were ushered into enclosures featuring two sections. The cat could be in one section while the staff could safely tend to the litter box in the other section.
“The two-section enclosures made it easier for these cats to feel safe and kept us from being bit or scratched,” he added.
When the Kaplans were permitted to finally return to their home, they had to wear hazmat suits and face masks because of the toxin-filled ash and rubble. Their entire house was gone and they salvaged only four porcelain penguins given to Laurie by her now-departed grandmother and a little bit of jewelry.
Everything else – including their clothes, photos, appliances – was destroyed.
Samet and Laurie Kaplan were able to quickly rent a one-bedroom unfurnished apartment in Chico. They knew the importance of taking steps to keep their cats from being stressed by the new place. After buying an air mattress, they headed to the local pet supply store to purchase their cats’ favorite food, plus a window perch and a large, sturdy cat tree.
“We immediately made the apartment cat-friendly with the cat tree and made sure we fed our cats the same food they are used to eating to prevent gastric upset,” he says. “Sure enough, after a day or so in the apartment, they were all perched on the cat tree, scratching it, and looking out the window on the perch.”
The Camp Fire is now ranked as the deadliest wildfire on record in California with more than 86 confirmed dead. By the time it was fully contained, it burned 153,336 acres and destroyed 13,972 homes, including those of three staffers at the Chico Hospital for Cats.
But Kaplan is grateful that what really matters – his wife, four cats and a tortoise named Papyon are safe.
How You Can Help
On the home page of the Chico Hospital for Cats is information about a Go Fund Me set up to help people impacted by the Camp Fire. To learn more, visit www.chicocats.com.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.