Video by Douglas Thron.
Among the burned-out buildings, cooked car frames and fire-scarred trees left in the wake of the the deadliest wildfire in state history, one man searches Paradise for life on a smaller scale.
National Park Service Ranger Shannon Jay, who has dedicated the last year of his life to rescuing cats from California’s unprecedented string of destructive wildfires, is in pursuit of his latest “fire cat.”
One charred cinderblock at at time, he props up the blackened skeleton of an abandoned pickup in hopes of saving the distressed cat beneath it.
Sprawled-out belly first onto broken glass and burnt rubble, Jay reaches under the truck and pulls the singed cat from the wreckage. Covered head to toe in ash, he loads the cat into an animal carrier and begins choking back tears.
“That is fuckin’ heavy,” he says.
Surrounded by the nearly 10,000 homes destroyed by the Camp Fire, he drops to his haunches and takes a moment to catch his breath before loading the cat into his truck and rushing to the nearest vet.
The moment, captured on video last Wednesday in Paradise, is one of roughly 50 successful cat rescues Jay says he’s pulled off in the last year while searching burned-down neighborhoods in his free time.
“During the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County I got involved rescuing cats. I call them fire cats,” Jay told the Outpost. “Between the Tubbs and Carr Fires, I spent 800 hours in the field rescuing fire cats mostly by myself. The amount of time and number speaks to how difficult they are to track.”
As a resident of Sonoma County and a self-proclaimed cat person, Jay said he was inspired to save as many cats as he could after the Tubbs Fire forced him to evacuate from Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Santa Rosa while he was off duty, recovering from brain surgery.
“There were 50 mile-per-hour winds and ash was raining from the sky like silver dollars,” Jay said. “That’s when I realized, ‘My god, this fire’s a monster; these cats are going to need help.’”
During his recovery, Jay decided to use his sudden excess of free time to save the lives of as many cats as he could.
“Through a lot of trial and error I learned a lot about rescuing cats in the fire zones,” he said. “I knew one way or another I needed to get up here and start rescuing cats.”
One year and dozens of cats later, photographer Douglas Thron, known for documenting the destruction left behind by the Tubbs fire, was asked by a filmmaker to follow Jay around last week for an upcoming documentary called “The Fire Cats of Santa Rosa.”
While Jay has gained attention for his recent rescue efforts, he says he doesn’t enjoy the spotlight.
“It’s about the cats; it’s not about me,” he said. “These people have lost everything. Everything is gone, and you bring them their cat back and that cat becomes a beacon of light for people who are living in a sea of darkness. To this day, I still talk to many of the people whose cats I’ve rescued, and that means everything to me.”
One of the more memorable moments, Jay recalled, was the time he reunited a Santa Rosa family with their cat Thomas, who was presumed dead after the family returned to their burned home three days after evacuating to find a cat body lying on their front porch. Forty-nine days later Jay rescued a cat in the area, and its microchip pinged back to the family.
“Thomas had come back from the dead,” he said. “I’ve never seen an animal with a will to stay on this planet like a cat. They will do whatever it takes to survive.”
As for the cat he rescued last week, Jay said vets are caring for her free of charge and that he’s holding out hope that he can reunite her with her family.
“She’s in very good condition. I’ve been following her progress,” he said. “No owners as of yet, but I’m working on that. I will foster her after she leaves the vet. I’m a sucker. If I can’t find a her family or a perfect home I very well may end up keeping her.”
While his latest fire cat recovers, Jay says he is back out in the field today, looking for more, and while he knows he can’t save every cat he finds, he’s determined to do the best he can.
“You want to save them all, but the reality is sometimes they’re just hurt too bad,” he said. “But we just push on.”