Rescuer stalks ‘fire cats’ amid Northern California ashes

Finding the missing cats that fled the October wildfires has been an impassioned quest for Jennifer Petruska, an animal lover whose home, pets included, was one of the few in her neighborhood to be spared.

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — When a firestorm swept down the hillsides of Sonoma County, bringing terror to this tight grid of thousands of homes, dogs tended to rush to their masters.

But cats went in the opposite direction, ignoring the pleas of panicked owners and disappearing amid the chaotic evacuation.

Finding the missing cats that fled the October wildfires has been an impassioned quest for Jennifer Petruska, an animal lover whose home, pets included, was one of the few in her neighborhood to be spared.

Petruska has spent nearly every night since the fires tracking and trapping fire cats, as she calls them, the felines that for weeks have remained missing because of stubbornness, trauma, instinct or a mix of all three.

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Catching cats can be tricky in the best of circumstances, but she and her team of volunteers have caught more than 70. They believe many dozens more are on the loose.

Pet Rescue & Reunification, as the volunteers call themselves, have set up night-vision cameras in storm drains and creek beds, where many cats went into hiding. Every evening at dusk they set traps baited with tuna and mackerel, checking them hourly until dawn.

“If you want to catch a cat you have to stay up all night — that’s just the name of the game,” Petruska said as she prepared for another dark and cold round of cat stalking. “I’ve been a horrible insomniac my whole life so it suits me.”

Coffey Park, the neighborhood where Petruska is focusing her efforts, may as well have been struck by a bomb. Well over 1,000 homes were leveled. Petruska and her team say they realize that with nearly 5,000 homes destroyed in the Santa Rosa area alone their effort is ancillary to the grieving and massive effort of reconstruction that is only just beginning.

The bleak landscape of charred lots is still teeming with creatures stealthily crawling throughout the night, mostly unseen.

Petruska says she knows there are still many cats on the loose because her motion-activated cameras capture them nearly every night, along with a parade of other nocturnal animals such as skunks, opossums and raccoons.

To the families who lost everything, recounting how Petruska helped recover…

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