Finding hope among the Camp Fire wreckage

Shannon Walajtys | April 24, 2019

Crawling on all fours through ashes, searching dark homes by headlamp, and coaxing frightened cats out from under dressers and inside cupboards—Louis Lombas had a day of unique challenges in Paradise, California last week.

Working with IFAW's disaster response team, Louis is an expert in emergency animal rescue. When he got the call to respond to the Camp Fire, which has put thousands of animals in temporary shelters and left more still in need of rescue, he packed his bags and left his Mississippi home to meet IFAW in the field.

The IFAW team joined our partner North Valley Animal Disaster Group to begin work in Chico, California. We offered guidance on improving efficiency and organization within shelters, cared for injured animals, and even created a database of stray animals to increase the number of pet and owner reunifications.

IFAW support was also critical for animal search and rescue teams. After assisting with sheltering throughout the beginning of the week, Louis was called to go beyond fire lines. Joining forces with Brian, a local Animal Control Officer, the two became one of 17 teams going into burn zones that day.

Louis and Brian drove into Paradise, a town all but wiped out by the wildfire, and observed miles upon miles of damage, entire neighborhoods leveled, homes reduced to ash. A stack of over 20 call sheets was their mission for the day with notes detailing emergency hotline calls from residents requesting to have their properties searched for their beloved pets, which were separated from them in the rush to evacuate with precious seconds to spare. Many people were already at work with no way to return home as the fire raced across land at record speed and temperature. Many gave permission for rescuers to break a window or kick in a door, any action necessary to search for their pets. Some call sheets included entry details such as a key under the mat on the back porch or an unlocked living room window. But often upon arrival, Louis and Brian discovered the fire left nothing behind.

The team of two wandered through a maze of burned structures, tapping periodically on walls to encourage animals out of hiding and scanning the rubble for any sign of movement. Along the way, they left bowls of water and food in places where animals may gather and for other animals safely "sheltering in place," such as goats and chickens.

Inside the homes still standing, testaments of owners' love for their pets were apparent everywhere—from "rescue our pets" stickers on front doors to a massive oil painting of a Persian cat covering a bedroom wall.

One of the recurring challenges confronting Louis and Brian was simply being able to find the animal. Cats especially, tramautized by the fire and confused by strangers in their home, evaded rescue by hiding under beds, inside open cupboards and drawers, and behind bookshelves. The responders found themselves on their hands and knees, relying on headlamps and flashlights, cat charming skills, and pure luck to coax the felines from hiding.

All in all, they successfully rescued six cats, including a beloved white cat named Booki. All were transported to a handoff point to be reunited with their families.

Louis and Brian were the last responders out of the field that day, staying until the search was exhausted and the mission complete. For a community that lost everything quickly and without warning, their pets are often the one piece of hope they can cling to. For Louis and the other responders, there's nothing more rewarding than being able to bring these deeply important members of the family home safe.

Share this article

Shannon Walajtys

Director – Disaster Response & Risk Reduction

It’s really about connecting with people--their history, their culture, their pride--that's how you grow the relationships between people and the animals in their community.

Related content

our work can’t get done without you. please give what you can to help animals thrive.

donate now

Unfortunately, the browser you use is outdated and does not allow you to display the site correctly. Please install any of the modern browsers, for example:

Google Chrome Firefox Safari