Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Oakland Firestorm...Angora Fire, Author's Recollections

 By Cal 

A Cat’s Eye View Of… The Oakland Fire

(California is Burning, August 2020)

On Sunday afternoon, October 20, 1991—just two years after the Loma Prieta earthquake rumbled the California San Francisco Bay Area—a devastating conflagration created a Stephen King-type of nightmare for East Bay pet owners and their pets. 

            The Oakland fire was not only a human tragedy—affecting the human-animal bond—but a never-ending feline disaster. Cats and their owners were separated during the terrifying chaos. As the wildfire spread through the Oakland/Berkeley hills, wildlife and companion animals fled for their lives.

            Many East Bay residents who tried to rescue their pets in the beginning of the commotion recalled that their cats were scurrying up and over their shoulders because they were in such a panic state. Some pet owners were able to roll a towel around their cats and escape. When owners of pets were forced to evacuate their homes while the huge black clouds of smoke hung overhead, many indoor-outdoor cats were out of sight.

            Unlike the earthquake of ’89, the odds were against cats in the immediate fire area. As the temperature soared to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, cats didn’t have a safe refuge. The East Bay Fire—one of the worst in the United States—was out of control for 69 hours as the warm Santa Ana-type winds intensified the natural disaster.

            San Francisco’s Pets Unlimited Veterinary Hospital manager, Linda Drake said, “There are people that said ‘Cats stay low to the ground’ and ‘Smoke overcomes people and they topple over.’ But maybe a cat could keep under the smoke barrier and could somehow make it through.” No one knew for sure.




            Before the fire was under control, the plight grew worse for many upper-middle class residents in the neighborhoods like Broadway Terrace and Hiller Highlands. Cat owners were hit with a double-whammy: Already grief-stricken about their burning homes, they had to cope with the fact that their pets were still missing in the fire area, and coined as fire victims, too.

            Reports from the animal shelters were bleak and frightening. “It’s far worse than the earthquake. We understand there are still several cats hiding up in the fire area. They’re hiding underneath the rubble,” said official Rhonda Rose of the Berkeley-East Humane Society.

            Immediately, Oakland Animal Control set up a team of animal control officers and other animal agencies to do search and rescue in the fire area. “Monday was not a good day because the fire was still burning,” explained Jim Parr, director of the Oakland Animal Control. Still, cats were being brought in by their owners because the owner had been displaced and needed a place temporarily to keep their animal.

            On Tuesday several animal control groups went up into the area of ashes and devastation. “We have rescued a few cats, we’re not finding many,” reported Marilyn Estes, senior animal control officer for the Oakland City Animal Shelter. “They’re still hiding. Today we intend to set traps as soon as we get up there with food and we’re hoping the animals will get up there and eat and then we’ll be retrieving the traps.”

            News reports continued: “Wildlife wandering through the ashes…Animals in need of rescue,” and “One lady lost seven cats which have no idea how to survive in this devastated environment.” Yet animal agency posters were more positive: “Don’t give up—animals will run miles, hide weeks. Search holes, storm drains.”

            Some cats were found alive. Some were found, but ended up at the shelter with either “Owner Unknown” tags on their metal cages. Others, according to the calls incoming to the shelters, were still missing. The belief was that many cats had not escaped the ravaging fire.





            As expected, the cats were disoriented, frightened, shell shocked and reverting to wild animals. “They’re hiding in and under the burned out rubble. A news crew found a cat that was under some smoldering material from a house,” recalled Estes who rescued the blue-eyed feisty Siamese-mix. “She was quite traumatized and not an easy cat to handle. She was singed and paws were burned some, but that cat was a lucky one.”

            Like the Siamese, many of the cats that came in from the fire area shared similar physical symptoms: singed whiskers, eyelashes, burned paws and pads. Most of the fire victims suffered from second degree burns, according to Pam Rohrich, DVM, of the Oakland SPCA, who tended at least 20 survivors. Ironically, smoke inhalation wasn’t a major dilemma, she said, since X-rays proved their lungs were clear.

            “We’ve had some loss of ear tips in the cats so they’re always going to have funny, short ears but that’s OK—they can do with that. We’ve had some mild ulcerations, but again it’s been superficial. Basically, the things were reasonably superficial or they died,” said Dr. Rohich.

            She also noted that treating fire survivors, as you’d expect, is a stressful ordeal.  “They don’t like it. It’s uncomfortable. Burns are extremely painful. It’s not fun to have to subject these animals to discomfort every day.”




            Many of the burned-out East Bay residents did not just endure a tragic fire and lose personal belongings. “It’s at the point where they’ve lost their homes and a couple of days after they suddenly realize they’ve lost their pets, too,” said San Francisco’s Pets Unlimited Veterinary Hospital manager, Linda Drake.

            The first few days after the fire, shelters quickly learned it was hectic for pet owners to try and reunite their cats. “So far hundreds of people have called in about their lost pets. The majority of them are cats. Unfortunately the majority of cats do not have tags,” said Beverly Scottland, development director at the Oakland SPCA.

            Pets Unlimited was swamped, too. “Every other minute we’re getting a phone call. Eighty-five percent are for cats. Everybody who is calling is giving us a description and where they are and describing what the cat had, a collar, etc.,” said Drake.

            Like after the earthquake, Bay Area people supported one another and united at a grassroots level. There was no time for red tape. No time. So people at shelters, veterinarian practices and other animal agencies, quickly offered free medical care, temporary shelter and other needed animal services.

            To help simplify the procedure and reunited cats with their owners, a lost-pet hotline (computer data base matching lost pet reports and animals in shelters) was created.

Two weeks after the fire, the data base had a listing of more than 200 cats found alive, according to Dr. Rene Gandolfi, chairman of the disaster preparedness committee for the Alameda County Veterinary Medical Association.

            Hotline statistics prove fire refugee’s tragedy and triumph:

41 dead cats found in the fire area.

75 cats reunited with their owners.

As of November 6th, 17 kittens and 110 adult cats had been rescued and are either at a shelter, under foster care or have not yet been claimed by their owners.



            After the Oakland Fire, some cats returned home without the hotline. One homeowner who went up to his house, and his totally singed cat was there on the front stoop waiting for him.

            Other cats needed coaxing from humans. On Thursday night, four days after the fire, cat owner Stacy Hofmann and her family returned to their burned lot. They had lost five cats.

            “We called first for any of the cats,” recalled 27-year-old Stacy. “We whistled for them. We were whistling for five or 10 minutes, then we heard a little meow coming from down the street below us. There’s no vegetation anymore so you can hear things real well. We had a flashlight and we’re shining it around and saw shining. At first, we thought it was it was metal, but we kept calling and whistling.” So the Hoffmans followed the meows.

            Stacy explained further. “It led us down in between our neighbor’s house and we saw what looked like eyes or shiny metal but they weren’t moving. Pretty soon the eyes started coming towards us and at that point we still didn’t know if it was our kitty, so we just kept on—‘Kitty, Kitty.’”

            Another 15 minutes passed before the Hofmanns knew it was an animal. Then, by luring the crying creature toward them, the family saw a cat. It was their kitty!  They had found their 7-year-old tabby, Cindy. She had survived.

            “It was overwhelming to finally find a piece of our past and one of our cats. She was purring and happy to see us, kneading and meowing. She smelled like a little smokepot,” explained Stacy.

            In spite of the happy ending, the Hoffman’s other four cats are still missing. “We’re still looking,” said Stacy. “I go every day to all of the shelters.” Meanwhile, Cindy’s name has been changed to Cinder, said Stacy, adding that the cat “wasn’t singed at all. She had no visible damages to her whatsoever. She’s the happiest kitty. She just purrs and purrs.”

            Stacy’s friend, Kathleen Edwards, also was greeted by a fire spooked cat. On the day after Halloween, the 30-year-old secretary/student, found a stray cat on the rooftop at work. “She jumped up on my window and jumped up on my desk. She then jumped on my lap. She sat there for a minute, and a sonic boom scared her so she jumped back out the window.”

            For a while, the domestic white cat with black spots sat on the corner of the rooftop. “She stuck her head in the window,” said Stacy, “and I noticed her whiskers were burned.” Kathleen took the cat to a veterinarian. Its disposition was good and it was okay.

            If no one claims Kathleen’s cat on the hot tin roof, via the pet hotline or ads she placed in a local newspaper, “Blaze” is already guaranteed a new home. The real-life tale was just another of the Fire of 91’s bittersweet endings. 

 Evacuate Now!  Getting Safe for You & Your Pet’s Sake

 On September 3, 2005, at least 40,000 people evacuated from New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina. And during this past summer of 2007, earthquakes in Japan floods, in Texas, and wildfires in Utah, Nevada, and California forced countless people to flee their homes.

It’s normal for people (and pets) to be scared by the threat of manmade disasters and Mother Nature’s wrath. However, when a catastrophe hits, how do you know when to evacuate?

Your Body: When danger ignites, stressors can cause high anxiety. Simply put, stress is triggered by the sensitivity of our sympathetic system, which jump-starts the fight-or-flight syndrome, identified by Dr. Hans Selye. So when the pressure is on, up go our pulse rate, respiration, and muscle tension. In other words, physical danger can be stressful. It can lead to pondering, “Will my neighborhood be next?” Some folks won’t evacuate because they believe roads would be two crowded and fleeing too dangerous. On the flip side, some people become complacent or are in denial (i.e., they continues to work and play as if everything is normal) if they are not immediately threatened.

When Reality Hits You & Your Pets: It’s not uncommon for authorities such as the Fire Department or police officers to come door-to-door and force you to evacuate. Or, you may receive a recorded message from the Sheriff advising you of a voluntary evacuation—to get out of harm’s way.

Survival Tip: Before chaos, panic, and physical danger sets in, make your exit cool, calm, and collected.

Your Mind: It’s time to get a move on with an emergency evacuation checklist. It includes:  Family members and pets; (for three to seven days).

When Reality Hits: It’s smart to have a prepared disaster kit for both of you and your companion animals so if you evacuate, you don’t have to think when you are under pressure… Once you arrive at your destination, keep abreast of the latest news. Most likely, the event will be covered on TV, radio, and online newspapers and publications.

Survival Tip: Keep your sanity. Fear of the unknown is scary. But, you’ll be safer—so you’ll have peace of mind.

 Your Spirit: Beware that this can be a stressful time and wreak havoc on your soul and well-being. After all, you (and your pet(s)) are away from your creature comforts and in a strange environment (i.e., shelter, hotel, etc.). Reports will be confusing. Are there more aftershocks? Will the water rise? Will the winds increase?

When Reality Hits:  Some news reports may be sensationalized. Other accounts may be misleading to prevent panic. Stay connected and centered. Don’t be too quick to return home. Log onto local and national news websites.

Survival Tip:  Take a break from the disaster updates. Prayers and meditation can work wonders.


Too Close to Home: The Angora Fire

Author Cal Orey Recalls the Out-of-Control Blaze 

The Angora fire was the largest fire in the Lake Tahoe Basin in one hundred years. It destroyed 3,100 acres and more than 250 homes. On June 26, early Tuesday afternoon, due to the strong winds the South Tahoe blaze jumped the containment line and forced hundreds of people and their companion animals to flee their homes…

            The sound of helicopters and sirens were amid me and my two dogs and one cat who had alerted me by their barking and restless behavior indoors. Mushroom clouds of smoke from the raging fire filled the background of my neighborhood, Bijou Pines, a few miles from Tahoe Keys and Tahoe Island—spots that were under voluntary evacuation. Several automated evacuation calls invaded my peace of mind and threat of the out of control wildfire was creeping closer and closer. Dense smoke and falling ash was making me nauseated and anxious. Reports of chaos and panic nearby scared me. The Fire Department didn’t answer their phone. Neighbors were hosing down their rooftops or pacing our street, while trying to decide if they should stay or go.

            Flashbacks of covering the Oakland Firestorm story of 1991 haunted me. Fire experts know we live in the Lake Tahoe Basin and there’s potential for a catastrophic firestorm. I chose to flee for my (and my family’s) body, mind, and spirit. Thirty minutes later: My brother (whom left to get a secure cat crate), two excited Brittanys, on crated cat, litter pan, pet food, important documents, and my purse were in the car. We avoided potential gridlock and drove to a pet-friendly hotel in Reno, NV. Three days later, I came home to a calmer and intact house. And yes, I’d do it again for our safety’s sake.

No comments:

Post a Comment