We are Survivors, Not Victims!

The months following the fire were a blur. I had almost given up hope that Cleo had survived the fire, as she had been locked in the house when I left. When I saw the pictures of what was left of my cottage, I didn’t see how in the world she could have survived.

However, I continued to monitor the Facebook groups that were posting about found animals. I found several that looked like Cleo, but one particular cat caught my eye. This kitty had been transferred to a vet in Natomas, a town just north of Sacrament and about an hour from my place of employment.

On December 1, 2018, I drove down to Natomas and identified Cleo. It was heartbreaking, as she was severely injured, with third degree burns to her nose, ears, and paws. She had been found on November 18th, so she had somehow, miraculously, survived for 10 days after the fire.

December 1, 2018: Reunited with my sweet Cleo for the first time. Her poor little face!

Cleo spent two months at the vet hospital. I was grateful that the SPCA was picking up the vet bills for all animals injured in the Camp Fire. Finally, on January 17, 2019, she was released to go home with me, and I promised to bring her for weekly follow up visits.

She had injured her “ankles” (the joint in a cat’s leg is their ankle) in the fire, and while the burns healed everywhere else, the skin over that joint is very thin, and refused to heal. Cleo also hadn’t been able to use her legs very much, and her skin around those joints was painful. She limped for a long time. The vet said it was due to her ligaments not being used much, and that it probably hurt to move the ankle joints because of her wounds. She said it might be permanent, but we wouldn’t know until she felt comfortable using those joints.

We’ve been in our own apartment for about a month now, following nearly five months of uncertainty and temporary housing. Cleo began to make a drastic recovery once we moved into our apartment. She stopped limping, she began to jump and showed an interest and energy I hadn’t seen in her since the fire. Both of her ankles are healed on their own.

It’s been nearly six months after the fire, and I feel that we are on a forward path to recovery, both physically (for Cleo) and emotionally (for both of us).

Miss Cleo, May 2019. Fat and sassy and other than being very skittish of loud noises, perfectly normal.

November 8, 2018

November 8, 2018 started out as any ordinary work day. The weather had been warm for November, and I was bemoaning this fact, as I am a cool weather person. I had woken up about 15 minutes before my alarm, so I got up and showered and prepared for the day.

My sweet, beautiful cottage before the fire. The window on the right is where Cleo would watch me leave each morning, and watch me come home each evening.

Cleo was demanding food, so I fed her and gave her some fresh water. I petted her and talked about how the weekend was almost here. I had an impulse to stay home and work from home for a couple of hours, and go into work about 10am. I was tempted, but at the last minute decided to just go in.

I left home about 6:30 am, because I had planned on stopping by McDonald’s on the way. I had a 40 minute commute to my job in Gridley, so stopping by to pick up a breakfast sandwich was a fun thing to do and eat on my way. Little did I know that would be my last visit to that McDonald’s. Later that morning, it burned to the ground.

As I left home, I looked back as I always do because Cleo hops up in the window to watch me as I leave. I waved at her and blew her kiss and off I went.

I arrived at work at 7:30 am and checked Facebook before plunging into my workday. I saw Action News Now’s post about about a small fire above Paradise in a town I’d never heard of. I made a mental note, but didn’t think anything about it.

By 8:30 am I received a frantic text from my landlord that the fire had hit Paradise and they were evacuating! Panicked, I thought about poor Cleo locked in the house at home! I rushed out the door and hopped in in my car, frantic for my poor kitty. Alas, they had already blocked access to the town at all the checkpoints. The highways were full of people in cars who were desperate to get into Paradise to rescue people, kids, and/or animals. It was a frightening, panicky feeling. My heart squeezed with emotion at the thought of my poor Cleo locked up in the house with the smell of the smoke and the sound of the flames. She must have been so scared! I didn’t weep because I was afraid I’d have an anxiety attack.

I called work and told them I wouldn’t be in the rest of the day. I drove into Chico and tried to decide what to do next. I found myself in the parking lot of Target. I was still feeling shell shocked, and I wasn’t sure what to do first. I parked in the lower end of the parking lot and just sat there thinking.  More cars began pulling up, and people got out of their cars and were on cell phones, calling loved ones. I read shock, denial, and pain on these people’s faces. I had no doubt my face had the same look, too. Some people were wandering around, with their hands on their heads or foreheads, trying to process what was happening.

I sat in my car for a couple of hours, worrying about Cleo and watching the news reports in horror, as the entire town of Paradise was quickly engulfed in flames. I texted back and forth with my landlords and I called my parents to let them know what was going on, in case they heard about the fire and worried. They had not heard about it yet, so they were worried but pleased that I was safe and sorry about Cleo. 

I posed on FB and answered messages from worried friends. Finally, after a couple of hours, I realized that I would likely need a hotel room that night. By then, all the hotels in Chico and the surrounding areas were booked. 

I finally found a room available at a hotel in Redding. I thought about just going to my parents house, but decided I wanted to stay close, just in case the fire somehow was out quickly and I could go to try and get Cleo. Unfortunately, that was not to be. 

After I booked my hotel room, I got out of my car and went into Target to purchase some basics — shampoo, body wash, deodorant, toothbrush, toothpaste, ibuprofen, eye drops (I have very dry eyes), body lotion, a comb, a charger for my phone, some snacks and bottled water for the hotel room. I also purchased a couple of tops and a sweater there. It was sobering to realize that the only thing I owned in the world before I purchased those things were the clothes on my back, my phone, and my car. I was grateful that I had three books in my car, because I am an avid reader and needed something to read. 

I paid for my purchases and got back into my car. I realized I was going to need my prescriptions, so I drove to Raley’s and refilled my prescriptions. I had to wait quite awhile, as there were a lot of other people doing the same thing, as you can imagine. 

After I picked up my prescriptions, I headed to the Avenue, which is the only place I can find underwear that fit me and that I like. I parked in front of the store and went inside. The first thing the salesperson said to me was “I hope you’re not here to buy underwear” (she meant that she hoped I wasn’t also a fire victim). I kind of chuckled and said, “Unfortunately, I am here to buy underwear.” She was immediately sympathetic and told me that fire victims were to get 40% off any purchases in the store. I was so relieved. While I was there, not only did I pick up some underwear, but I also picked up several tops. I figured my jeans I had on would be okay until I could come back and shop some more. I didn’t even think about socks, because the weather was still warm enough that I was wearing sandals. 

By then, it was early evening, so having gotten everything I could think of, I headed to Redding and checked into the motel. I was so emotionally drained, it seemed like the longest drive of my life. I checked into the motel, and I felt like a bag lady, as all I had were myself and a couple of bags of clothes! 

I must have gotten dinner somewhere but right now I can’t remember where. I was starving, as I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. I went back to the hotel, took a shower and collapsed into bed. I was mentally and physically exhausted, unsure of what the future held. I didn’t even have a nightgown, but I had purchased a t-shirt at the Avenue so I wore that. I was grateful for the shirt and the clean underwear. 

My toiletries I purchased at Target.

I spent the evening watching the continuous coverage from Action News Now, kept up with Facebook, until I was just too exhausted. I fell immediately asleep, and slept all night.