By Spc. Amy Carle, 69th Public Affairs DetachmentNovember 21, 2018
CHICO, Calif. - A couple with a cat carrier presses themselves against a hallway wall at the Chico Municipal Airport trying to stay out of the way of busy volunteers. They smile anxiously at each other, gripping the carrier and waiting for the word that they can reclaim their beloved pet. She is one of nearly 1,800 displaced animals housed at shelters in the area outside of Paradise, California, decimated by the Camp Fire.
Volunteers lead the couple inside a small office lined with crates, and they start coaxing their reluctant cat into the carrier. Cats tend to struggle in these kinds of disasters, said Norm Rosene, public information officer for the North Valley Animal Disaster Group (NVADG). They can remain highly stressed by the disruption to their routines, so the facility keeps them separated from other animals, and the staff speaks very quietly.
"This is what you want to see," Rosene whispers to the volunteers, gesturing as the couple reunites with their pet.
To aid in response and relief efforts for the Camp Fire, the airport has been converted to a temporary animal shelter, caring for displaced animals and providing donations to pet owners in need.
Outside the airport's main terminal, pallets full of cat food, piles of dog beds, and boxes of leashes and toys line the sidewalk. Volunteers and California Army National Guard Soldiers scurry to help unload donations from a steady stream of cars and trucks lined up at the curb.
Because the airport is not able to operate normally, it was converted to a makeshift animal shelter housing hundreds of animals displaced by the devastation of the Camp Fire. Rosene said the buildings and fencing configuration make an ideal location for the shelter, with built-in dog runs and space for multiple types of small animals. While the facility primarily houses dogs and cats, it also provides shelter to rabbits, pet birds, hamsters, reptiles, chickens, ducks and geese.
"It's a big job." Rosene said. "It's a challenge to help take care of all these animals, but this is our goal and purpose."
Out on the sidewalk, two Soldiers from the California Army National Guard's 870th Military Police Company direct traffic and help unload donations.
Spc. Mark Maynard, a military police officer with the 870th, explains that he and his company help with operations, and provide additional security. Maynard says he is spending much of his time helping volunteers and community members who visit the shelter.
"We're unloading people's donations and giving people donations that have been received," Maynard said. "We give people the right directions if their animal is lost, or if their animal is here and they want to visit them. It's good to show your support and help them the best way you can. It gives me pride and joy...to help them with whatever they need."
Soldiers from the MP company provide 24-hour support for the facility. At night, they secure and patrol the shelter so the volunteers get a chance to go home.
"Having the Guard here is really important to help our volunteers get some rest," Rosene said. "It's good to have people here with the skills needed to deal with this kind of situation."
Inside the dog shelter, it is surprisingly peaceful. Music plays to keep the animals calm, and their crates are covered with blankets to help them feel safe. Though there are unclaimed animals in the larger facility, all the dogs in this building have been identified by their owners and are waiting to be reunited with their families.
Animals arrive at the shelter through many different paths. Some are rescued by fire crews, others are picked up by volunteers at the request of their owners, some are located by utility crews, and some are being housed temporarily because their owners are staying at a shelter that doesn't allow pets.
Many of the volunteers at the shelter are local, and came to work here because they have been personally impacted. Many of them have seen the impact of the fire first hand, and this work is very personal for them.
Michelle Moore, a musical theater major at Chico State, has been working long days at the shelter ever since operations began. After the college canceled their classes, Moore, who is originally from Texas, began volunteering full time to support the operations at the terminal.
"I love these babies," she says, cuddling one of her favorite dogs. "I want to make their lives easier."
Moore often works 12 or 14 hour days at the shelter, and plans to continue working with NVADG in the future. She said that the outpouring of support is almost overwhelming.
"As awful as this situation is, it has boosted my confidence in humanity," said Moore.
Rosene echoed his appreciation for the outpouring of support the shelter has received. Managing operations at this scale has required massive coordination, he said.
Multiple organizations have come together to provide response efforts, including search and rescue efforts, volunteer coordination and veterinary care. The organizations work directly with Butte County Animal control, and include support from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, a leading expert in managing disaster operations, and the California Veterinary Medical Reserve Corps, which provides medical treatment and care for the animals on site.
"This effort is just so huge," he said. "It's a rare and extraordinary thing. It takes all of us to get things done."