Drama at the Cat Sanctuary: Social Cats and a Fire

For once, a long me-me-me post that may interest someone outside my immediate family…November 14 and 15 were quite a weekend.

First, Heather, Queen of the Cat Sanctuary, negotiated a successful labor strike. I am not making this up. You can see, even from this image of a half-grown kitten nonverbally expressing “How could you take Ivy’s picture first,” that Heather is a cat you don’t meet every day.

Last spring Heather gave birth to five kittens. Two of them, Tickle and Elmo, remain at the Cat Sanctuary.

“They’re six months old now,” I said. “It’s time they moved on to permanent homes. I don’t want tomcat odor in the house.”

“Their permanent home is my permanent home,” said Heather, nonverbally, “and you will let them in the house, and you will feed them, or I’ll move out. I may have been born in a house but I can revert to being totally feral any time I want to. I can live on wild squirrels…there are enough of them in the woods this year!”

So for ten days, while I searched for her and thought she might have been killed or petnapped, Heather skulked in the woods, and Ivy was able to catch one of the recent gray squirrel irruption. The only evidence of Heather’s survival I could find was a steady decline in the squirrel overpopulation problem.

On November 14, Heather came home, waking me around 2 a.m. After watching to see that Tickle and Elmo were fed too, she ate another meal and agreed to be friends again. I didn’t get back to sleep that night.

After the cat family drama, November 15 started out to be a bland, even boring, sunny autumn day. I put the trash in the wood stove as I usually do. I usually burn just one piece of wood with one bag of trash. I saved truckloads of scrap wood from construction jobs in 1993 and in 2006, and have almost half the total volume of wood left, today. On November 15 the trash (mostly used tissue) was on the damp side so I put in a larger scrap of wood than usual, a piece of a 2×4 instead of the usual skinny slat. I did not anticipate a need to watch the fire. I expected that about half of the trash bag and half of the wood would be in the stove, cold, in the morning.

If I’d stayed in the older part of the house (it has three distinct sections, old, new, and in between) I would have noticed that something different happened with that little trash fire. What happened was a chimney fire. If you keep your chimney nice and clean, chimney fires burn out harmlessly. If you let soot and creosote build up, the fire in the chimney can be hot enough to ignite wood or paper near the chimney…especially if the wall near the chimney is insulated with the pre-asbestos kind of petrochemical stuff that burns faster than paper.

On November 15 I learned that this can also happen if you inadvertently burn a scrap of wood that was once, long ago, treated with creosote. That wood burned bright and hot, drying and consuming the damp tissue, blazing straight up into the chimney.

All these years I’d never even wondered what the walls in the older part of the house were insulated with. Only when I smelled smoke, ran into the kitchen, and saw flames flickering inside the wall, did I find out…it was the bad stuff all right, and the fumes when that stuff burns are horrible.

When I was growing up in the house where I now live, everybody knew that the fire engines couldn’t pump or haul enough water to spray on a house that was not on a town water system; the county fire department wouldn’t do anything. You fought your own fire, and your neighbors’ if you didn’t want their fires to spread to your property, or you just stood about watching your house burn to the ground. I stayed in a house across the creek, and watched a poor old lady watch her home burn, when I was six years old. I helped save our house, and contain the fire after a neighbor’s house was lost, as a teenager. Even my depressive sister has some fire-fighting experience.

So I knew not to panic. The air was damp, the wood was not very dry, so despite the blaze from the insulation the fire didn’t spread fast. I had time to run in and out sloshing bottles of water on the flames, but the insulation kept blazing up again, and also I found out that I’m not tall enough to climb up on the roof from the ladder that was available. About that time a neighbor passed by. I asked him to try climbing up on the roof. He’s taller than I am, but fatter, and didn’t get onto the roof either. The fire was getting ahead of us. Well, why not call the fire department, I had said. On a lazy Sunday afternoon one of them might be willing to take a bottle of water up on to the roof.

About that time the county fire engine rolled up, and to my surprise the county fire department did take over fighting the fire. That is why the house is basically intact today. Inside, there’s a big hole in the wall between the two oldest rooms, a small hole in the ceiling, some damage to the chimney, some damage to the stove, and some further damage to the wiring I hadn’t dared to use since the 2011 cyclone anyway. The house still has an intact floor that will support seven large men, an intact roof that will support one of them, and mostly intact but unconnected electrical wiring. The neighbor and I might have put the fire out without professional help, but the damage would certainly have been worse.

I had planned to go into town and post that long reflection on sustainable organic gardening on November 15. I had wanted to stay home and enjoy the relatively warm, sunny afternoon. I had actually prayed about the matter and felt led to stay…at least a little later…when the fire started. So when it was over I was actually saying, “Thank you, God.”

Well, by then, it was time to call the cats to dinner…and where was Heather? I think she seriously considered going back to the woods. The other cats had missed her, too, and we all spent a lot of time roaming around in the woods, calling Heather. Then Heather took some time making up her mind whether she could stand the smell in the house. In the end, though, I think she took pity on us.

The sun was down; the temperature went down. I had considered myself over bronchitis, finally, on November 14. Deep breaths of chemical fumes followed by deep breaths of cold air brought the bronchitis back worse than ever.

On the whole, though, I think the Cat Sanctuary was better off than November 16 than on November 13. It may be a while before anybody can either cook or burn trash in the kitchen…but at least we do have Heather.

2 thoughts on “Drama at the Cat Sanctuary: Social Cats and a Fire”

  1. Heather is beautiful, but I should add that of course I think she’s beautiful because I think all torties are beautiful. I can tell she has the tortitude (tortoiseshell attitude…the quirky personality that tri-colors, especially torties seem to have); you can see it in her eyes. Good she’s safe.

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