The Cat Rescuer and The Southern California Fires
By Joe Longo
On November 8, 2018, Jan Irwin drove through a wall of fire with 19 cats in her Prius Wagon. She said she didn’t think. She just drove.
Fall is wildfire season in Southern California. Seven of the state’s most destructive wildfires occurred in the fall. The fires are propelled by the hot, dry Santa Ana winds, also known as the Devil Winds. The Spanish missionaries called the winds Satan.
On November 8, there were two fires ranging through the chaparral- covered hills of Southern California: the Hill Fire and the Woolsey Fire. The former, though destructive, was short-lived but the latter, which started in Woolsey Canyon near the boundary between Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, was pushed by the winds in a southerly direction towards the heavily-populated suburban cities of Oak Park, Agoura Hills, Thousand Oaks, Calabasas and celebrity-laden Malibu.
Jan Irwin, an energetic 59 year woman with alert blue-green eyes, lives in Thousand Oaks, voted one of the happiest cities in America. One day before the fires ignited, however, there was a mass shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, a nightclub frequented by college students. Thirteen people were killed before the gunman, an ex-marine, turned the gun on himself. The day after, on the heels of this tragedy, Thousand Oaks was assaulted with two destructive wildfires.
Jan Irwin has lived in Thousand Oaks for 35 years and is a professional cat sitter and volunteers at the LIFE Rescue Mission which houses rescue cats and dogs. In the past, she has had to evacuate because of wildfires and loaded her car with her cats. She has twelve of her own. But those evacuations were false alarms.
While growing up, Jan was surrounded by animals. She even had a duck at one point, but didn’t get her first cat until she was 10. “My neighbor’s cat had kittens. My mother said the dogs don’t like cats. Why don’t you take a kitten, said my neighbor, and if the dogs don’t like it I’ll take it back. The dogs didn’t have a problem with it. That’s how I got my first cat, Samatha. I called her Sam.” Jan wanted to be a vet. In college, however, chemistry changed her mind. She liked biology but chemistry was a nightmare
She got into cat rescue 20 years ago. “…because one day this stray cat showed up in my yard. It hated my two cats, and bit the heck out of them to the tune of $400 in injuries. I called him psycho kitty. He was a little wiggy. He would come up against you and when you would leave, he would attack your legs and chomp. Then he disappeared. After a while, he showed up again. Looking terrible. He was sick, skinny. I took him to vet, had him neutered, and asked the vet why does he looked so awful? Well, it’s spring time, he said. And the male cats have one thing on their minds. So he had been catting around. He turned out to be really sweet. I named PURR-KINS for Anthony Perkins.”
She took him to the local Pet Smart, where they had adoptions. The people there said leave him and we’ll see what happens. Jan said, “ I wanted to see who would adopt him. They looked at me as if I had three heads. Because nobody does that.”
After three Saturdays Purr-kins got a home and Jan cried. Then she was asked if she wanted to volunteer. “I guess they knew a sucker when they saw one.” Well,” I said,”I could probably do one Saturday a month.”
That’s how she got involved with LIFE Animal Rescue. (LIFE is an acronym for Life Is For Everyone.) The group started 26 year ago, and has shelters for both cats and dogs. The shelters are located in a guest house on property owned by a family with two animal-loving daughters.One daughter volunteered at a shelter and kept bringing dogs home that were going to be put down. The family talked their friends and relatives into taking them. Then they ran out of friends and relatives and started a shelter. Their other daughter started to rescue cats.The property is on a slope leading up into Santa Monica Mountains.
On the day of the fire, Jan was driving around doing her pet sitting stops. “It was windy,” she said, “the Santa Anas were blowing like crazy. I had my radio on, and they would make little references to the fires.They first talked about the Hill Fire. And then they made a brief mention of the Woolsey Fire. I could see some smoke from the Hill Fire, but I didn’t see smoke from the Woolsey Fire yet. In the past, I had to evacuate animals. So I am always on alert for that.”
She made a stop at Lindero Canyon. And saw the first sign of smoke coming in. Then as she drove home to feed her cats, the winds grew more fierce.
Later that day, she went to a memorial for the people who were shot at the 1Borderline Bar and Grill. It was going to be held outdoors but because of the blowing winds it had to be held inside the Civic Center.
Then one of her pet sitting clients called her. She had gotten a volunteer evacuation notice. “That ridiculous,” Jan said, “I was just in your area. It’s smoky but there’s not reason to evacuate”. She called a friend who lives near her client. She said she got an evacuation notice too. Her friend said, “It’s smoky here but there’s no fire.”
Jan called her client back and told her not to worry. “A half hour later my client called me back and told me she got a mandatory evaluation from the city. They said that the fire was going to hit her area in 30 minutes.” How do they know that? Jan said to herself. This client was not home. “I called her back and said I’ll drive over to get your cats, and bring them to my house.” Jan placed the client’s four cats in carriers and put them in her car.
Then she realized she had another client with three cats that lived close to that client. “So I better get her cats too,” she thought. She then had seven cats in her car.
As she was driving home she got her own mandatory evacuation on her cell phone. “What the heck,” she said. “I left my house an hour ago.” Meanwhile, she saw no flames anywhere. “The only smoke I saw was in the next town. I listened to the news and they’re talking about how fast the fire is moving. I thought I better get my guys.” She got home and placed her twelve cats in carriers and put them in her car. Now she had 19 cats in carriers in her car.
She said, “There were three carriers on the back seat double stacked. Three on the passenger side in soft carriers. Two soft carriers on the floor on the back seat. Two carries double stacked on the front seat. The rest of them were in the back of the car.” She said she was surprised the cats were quiet. Then she met her one client with the three cats and gave them to her. Now she had sixteen cats.
Her friend Cheryl called her. She was at the shelter and said they just gotten an evacuation order. So Jan headed to the shelter. At that point the shelter had fourteen cats. When she got there, volunteers were loading cats into cars.
Katherine peeking out from under a blanket.
One cat, Katherine, was a problem. She wouldn’t get into a carrier. “The one time we took her to the vet,” Jan said. “We had to drug her in order to get her into one. But we didn’t have any drugs now. So we spent a frustrating two hours trying to get her into one. But no luck.” Then we received a text message to evacuate. During the past 30 years, fires have never come through the area where the shelter is. “So we thought there was no danger, and we’d come back for Katherine in a few hours,” said Jan.
She put three cats in her car. “I was back to nineteen cats,” she said.
They decided to drive to Albertsons, a supermarket not far from the shelter. As they drove they didn’t see any smoke or fire, and there wasn’t any wind. When they got to Albertsons, the parking lot was jammed. People were milling about, sleeping in heir cars, chatting. It was 1:30am.
At about 3:30 they started seeing some flames on a hill. “It’s moving this way,” Jan said. Everybody was just watching. No one was panicking. Then they were told that the freeway was closed and most roads leading out of the parking lot were closed.
Smoke hovering over a neighborhood.
At 5:30 as the sun was coming up, and the Santa Ana winds began whipping flames closer to the parking lot. Anxiety began to ripple through the crowd. Then they heard on the radio the entire city of Malibu had been evacuated. And in the distance, they saw spiraling plums of black smoke coming from where the shelter was. Images of Katherine flashed through Jan’s mind. Then they heard the fire had just jumped the freeway and all the brush on either side of the freeway was burning. The flames were about three feet high and the devil winds were blowing more fiercely. Jan said to Cheryl, “We don’t have a choice. If we stay here we could be in big trouble, because the fire is getting closer to the parking lot.”
People could drive east on the freeway but couldn’t drive west. To go east, however, drivers had to plow through a wall of flames. Jan and Cheryl had no choice but to go east. Ironically, Cheryl had an appointment at her vet’s that morning, so they decided to meet there.
Jan drove on to the freeway, and she was immediately engulfed in an inferno. “I floored it and drove through a wall of flames with nineteen cats in my car. I didn’t think. If I thought about it, I would have freaked out. When I got through the fire, I was amazed to see blue skies. Then I looked for my friend. She was nowhere to be seen.”
When I got to the vet’s office, Cheryl phoned me. “Where are your?”
“At the vet’s,” I said. “Where are you?”
“Back in the parking lot. The car in front of me panicked, stopped and made a u-turn. And I did too.”
“You got to go back and go through it.”
“You have to. Just floor it.”
Jan heard the Cheryl’s engine revving and then after a bit, Cheryl said, “Oh, my god. I got through, and there are blue shies.”
By Friday night Jan was allowed back into her home. She emptied her Prius of the 19 cats. She put the six rescue cats in the bathroom. “I’ve been up from Thursday morning to Friday night. And when I got home, I crashed, and slept really well.”
By Saturday morning things were pretty much under control, and Jan headed to the rescue to check on Katherine. “When I got up there,” she said, “I saw that the fencing had melted. The whole hill behind the rescue was burned. But the shelter was standing. All the power was out, however. Water mains had broken and water was gushing everywhere. There were spot fires, which we quickly put out. The trash cans melted to the ground. But the kitty litter and cat cans didn’t burn. That’s what you should build your house out of – cat cans, because they won’t burn. I found Katherine in a bed under a blanket. She was fine but was definitely spooked. It took us a few days to clean up the shelter.”
The Woolsey Fire caused the death of three people, displaced and injured wildlife, burned 96,949 acres, destroyed 1,643 structures, and prompted the evacuation of 295,000 people from their homes. The massive Woolsey Fire was one of the most destructive wild fires in Southern California’s history.
Cat food cans and litter after the fire.