Imagine a wildfire sweeping through your hometown in the middle of the night but you can’t escape because you have no vehicle—you’re an outside domestic cat. So it’s up to you to figure out how to survive alone and in the dark among the flames. 

This was the devastating situation that 3-year-old Socks the Cat found herself in as the Holiday Farm Fire, one of the worst fires in Oregon history, raged through her hometown of Blue River, an unincorporated community of 800 located along the McKenzie River northeast of Eugene. 

During this incredibly stressful time, when no one could breathe because of the choking smoke in the air, a coordinated team effort including search and rescue teams, Greenhill Humane Society and VCA McKenzie Animal Hospital collaborated to save Socks and other domestic animals affected by this devastating wildfire.

“I was watching the fire’s progress on my scanner at 8:15 p.m. that night,” says Socks the Cat’s owner Donald Dow, who’s disabled due to a work accident and has endured five back surgeries to repair his damaged discs. “They said don’t worry about the fire tonight, so I went to bed. Then at 12:50 a.m., police officers came down my street with bullhorns yelling, ‘Get out now!’ I was one of the last people to get out of town.” 

With only the clothes on his back, Donald ran for his pickup truck that night to escape the encroaching flames while yelling for Socks. “While flaming branches were falling on the road, I drove off in my pickup truck without her,” states Donald. “I lost everything that night, and I had no insurance.”

It was Labor Day 2020, and severe drought, extreme winds and multiple ignitions fueled the most destructive wildfires in Oregon’s history. The wildfire destroyed 4,009 homes in Oregon, burning roughly 1.07 million acres, the second-most on record. 

“Wildfires on this scale are new to us here,” says Cary Lieberman, executive director of Greenhill Humane Society in Eugene, Oregon, a VCA shelter partner. “We worked with volunteers under the Lane County Animals in Disaster Plan to develop a system to triage injured animals being evacuated from the fire zones. Having VCA McKenzie on board was key to making the plan work. It allowed us to work closest to the fire and to get safely in and out. The hospital offered us the flexibility and eagerness to help.”

Days later, once it was safe enough to return to Blue River, first responders entered the fire zone. Eugene Springfield Fire Captain Greg Deedon, who was acting as the Line Safety Officer with the Oregon State Fire Marshall, found Socks where the general store once stood—the very spot she would go for a second breakfast every day. He gave Socks food before delivering her to the veterinary triage area located at VCA McKenzie Animal Hospital in Springfield, Oregon, located two blocks from a Level 1 Evacuation Zone. 

“Because dogs usually leave with the evacuated families, it’s the outside cats who get left behind,” explains Alyssa Baker, hospital manager, VCA McKenzie. “Socks was the first guest in the triage hospital that we set up to handle injured animals who were lost or abandoned. When she arrived, we were still trying to figure out the tagging system and recordkeeping, which was even more tricky due to the pandemic. When the staff opened up the carrier, we found Socks to be the sweetest cat. She rubbed on us and was so caring. I think she was so thankful to be away from the burn site.”

After assessing her wounds, the staff took photos for the family search. “Socks certainly looked like she had been through a natural disaster with second-degree burns on one paw, first-degree burns on the other three paws and singed whiskers,” states Mary Arpaia, DVM, medical director at VCA McKenzie. “During her initial exam, we gave her pain relievers to keep her in a comfortable state in order to start her rehabilitation. Once she was stable, we transferred Socks for additional medical needs and treatments.”

Six cats came in for burn treatments with varying levels of severity—and most were at VCA McKenzie for weeks. “In order to heal burns, cats need protein,” says Dr. Arpaia. “It was hard to provide adequate nutrition for these cats because they didn’t want to eat—so that was a struggle. One cat came in at 4.8 pounds and left at 7.7 pounds, which was a huge win! The cats’ bandages needed to be changed every two days, which is time consuming. Many of the cats required skin-graft treatments, which are successful because they allow for regrowth.”
While other vets from the area also helped with animal care, it was primarily the medical staff from VCA McKenzie who worked overtime to care for these animals in addition to their regular clientele under extremely difficult conditions. The care team had to wear two N95 masks during this time because air quality was so horrible. And the hospital’s filtration system could not keep up—the air filters were completely black. 

“The wildfire was devastating to our community and it took a deep emotional toll on all of us,” recalls Dr. Arpaia. “There was so much loss, but then there was hope in saving the animals. We’re a helping profession and we all supported one another. I’m so proud of the commitment, collaboration and efforts of the individuals in our veterinary community.”  

Socks did not require skin grafts for her burns but did receive analgesics, antibiotics, wound treatment and bandaging. So she only spent one night at the hospital and was transported to Greenhill to recover. It was here that she first reunited with Donald. He was watching the animal rescue posts and saw Socks’ photo on the website. 

“I shared a photo of Socks to confirm that she was mine,” explains Donald. “I went to visit Socks at Greenhill 12 days after the fire while I was living at a hotel in Eugene. I sat down on the floor, and she came onto my lap right away. The staff at Greenhill and the hospital was amazing. Not only did they treat her burns, but they also fixed and chipped Socks free of charge.”

Socks remained at Greenhill Humane Society for 92 days to recover, which gave Donald time to find a new home where they could both live. After living for a month at a hotel, his father found him an RV that he eventually set up on his land in Blue River where only a few trees still stand but not a single building survived the blaze.

During her 92-day stay at Greenhill, Socks became a symbol of joy and hope for a community struggling to recover. Then on Tuesday, December 15, 2020, Donald returned to Greenhill to pick up Socks to return home. 

“She was traveling home to Blue River in a box in the backseat of my pickup truck,” recalls Donald. “She then jumped out of the box and curled up on the seat. I told her: ‘We’re going home now.’ Today, you wouldn’t even know she was hurt from the fire. She’s running around and climbing trees. But now Socks wants to be an inside cat at night!” Can you blame her?
“After 12 days, Donald Dow was reunited with Socks. 92 days later, he told her: ‘We’re going home now.’”