The families of Paradise, California, lost everything from homes, cars, and personal possessions to pets and even family members in the horrific Camp Fire. Eighty-five people died and over 18,000 buildings were reduced to ashes during a 17-day inferno in the Northern California town.
For Paradise residents Paul and Sandra Ritchie, the heartbreak of losing their home—and the relief of escaping the November 2018 blaze with their lives—was constantly overshadowed by their worry about family cat Dexter.
For many, the need to evacuate came rapidly and without warning, leaving families like the Ritchies scrambling to gather their possessions and flee. They were able to find three of the family’s cats on their way out the door, but Dexter had gone missing. As heart-wrenching as it was, Paul Ritchie assumed that the feline had met his demise surrounded by walls of fire.
“I myself had horrible thoughts about him burning up in the fire,” Ritchie explained to CBS13 in an interview.
In reality, though, Dexter had inexplicably managed to get himself to safety. And more than 100 days after the family thought they had lost their family pet for good, he was flown across the country to be reunited with his owners.
The journey from being a complete family in Paradise to where the Ritchies and Dexter are now was a long and arduous one. First, Dexter was picked up by the Field Haven Feline Rescue Center months after the fire while the organization was working to comb the area in the time following the fire’s demise.
A microchip told the rescue center that Dexter belonged to the Ritchies, but it was no easy task getting him back into their hands. The family, who had completely lost their home in the fire, ended up relocating to Defiance, Missouri, about an hour outside of St. Louis. The rescue center had to track them down and then send the cat on a cross-country flight to be reunited in the St. Louis airport with his human mom and dad.
Despite the seemingly long and painful process of getting the cat back to his owners, though, their joy and disbelief were apparent by tearful cuddles at the airport.
“How he got out, I don’t know,” Ritchie explained. “How he managed to not get burned, I don’t know, because when we left our property was totally in flames.”
“It’s going to be unbelievable. I think I’m going to just stand there and cry and want to hug him,” said wife Sandra when she learned that the cat would fly out to his family.
This happy ending isn’t going to be an isolated one, either. While Dexter grows reaccustomed to spending time with his family, his fellow fire refugees will be head back home as well.
The Field Haven Feline Rescue Center have so far managed to pick up a whopping 200 cats during their efforts, all of which are waiting to be reunited with their families. And with more than 1,000 animals out there that still need to be rescued and reunited with their families, there are likely hundreds who will get to find a bright spot in among what was almost certainly the darkest weeks of their lives.