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’d woken up about 15 minutes before my alarm, so I got up, showered, and prepared for the day.
Cleo, my two-and-a-half-year-old black cat, was demanding food. 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 and work from home for a couple of hours and then go in to work later in the morning. I was tempted, but at the last minute, I decided against it. This turned out to be a wise decision.
I left home about 6:30 a.m., because I’d planned on stopping by McDonald’s on the way. I’d 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 ever visit to that McDonald’s. Later that morning, it burned to the ground.
As I left, 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 a.m. and checked Facebook before plunging into my workday. I saw Action News Now’s post 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 a.m. 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. Alas, they had already blocked access to the town at all the access points. 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 feeling. My heart squeezed with emotion at the thought of my 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 wouldn’t be able to stop.
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. I wasn’t sure what to do first. I parked in the lower end of the lot and just sat there, thinking. More cars began pulling up, and people got out of their cars. They were on cell phones, calling loved ones. I read shock, denial, and pain on these people’s faces. I’d no doubt my face had the same look. Some 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. 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 Facebook 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 eventually 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 was out quickly, and I could go 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’d three books in my car. I’m 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 them. I’d to wait quite a while, as there were a lot of other people doing the same thing.
Then, I headed to the Avenue, a clothing store which is the only place I can find underwear that fits 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 got 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 the jeans I’d on would be okay for now. 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. I’d gotten everything I could think of and was going to get gas, but the lines were awful. I’d half a tank, so I headed to Redding. It was dark, and I dislike driving in the dark under the best of circumstances. I remember that hour and a half drive as being the longest of my life. I’dn’t eaten since breakfast, but I wasn’t hungry. I was numb, my entire body ached, and I just wanted to collapse. When I checked in to the motel, I felt like a bag lady, as all I’d were a couple of bags of clothes and toiletries!
I decided to get some food, but I don’t recall where I ate, or what I ate, or even if it was good. However, eating helped me feel a little better.
I returned to the hotel, took a shower, and collapsed into bed. I was mentally and physically exhausted, and unsure of what the future held. I didn’t even have a nightgown, but I’d purchased a t-shirt at the Avenue, so I wore that. I was grateful for the shirt and the clean underwear.
The following months were a blur. I’d 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 made it.
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 Sacramento – 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 ten days after the fire.
Cleo spent two months at the veterinary 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 it refused to heal. Cleo also hadn’t been able to use her legs very much; 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’d not seen in her since the fire.
It’s been nearly six months since the fire, and I feel that we are on a forward path to recovery, both physically and emotionally.
Karen Oakes is a 60-year-old woman who lived in Paradise, California when the Camp Fire wildfire broke out. Karen is a seasoned HR professional, with 21 years of experience. She received a BA from CSU Chico, and a master’s from the University of Phoenix. Karen has always been an avid reader and secretly entertained her heart’s desire to be a writer one day. After recently losing her job due to a corporate restructuring, she is pursuing her dream while also looking for a paying job! Karen recently started a blog and a Facebook page chronicling her cat Cleo’s miraculous survival from the fire. Blog: https://cleothemiraclecat.com/ Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/CleoTheMiracleCat/ Karen is happily single, and has two grown sons; Mark, 36; and Scott, 31. Karen and Cleo currently reside in Chico, California.