August 21, 2013 Updated: August 21, 2013 at 11:30 am
Tom the cat is home.
His incredible journey took 28 days and 6 miles of padding through ash, downed trees and charred neighborhoods, while outsmarting hungry coyotes and foxes along the way.
When he arrived at his former home on Snowdrift Lane this past weekend, though, all he found was a burned-out shell of a house and a pile of rubble. No one was there, so he hunkered down and waited patiently under the next-door neighbor's shed for his family to find him.
Jason Miller, singer and songwriter with J. Miller Band, his wife, Allison, and daughter Lily had adopted two tiny kittens at the Rockin' B Feed and Supply seven years ago. One didn't live long. But Tom was a survivor.
Miller acknowledged, "I've never been a cat guy."
But Tom grew on him.
"He's a big old sweet tom cat. He always nags me until I rub his belly. One time he lined up three decapitated mice at the same time as a gift at the front door."
They tried to keep him inside at night, but occasionally he would slip out for the thrill of the hunt. Though a few times he was the hunted. They'd hear him yowling and scuffling with foxes. But he was brave and ran fast and climbed trees. On June 11, the day the Black Forest fire started, Tom stuck close to home - an unusual thing for him to do during the day. He liked to be out and about checking the property.
"I think he knew something was wrong," Miller said. They had only 45 minutes to evacuate, which they did safely along with Tom, and their other pets, Johnny Cash, a Labrador retriever; Ruby the Yorkie; and Speedy the turtle.
But Tom was disgruntled at Allison's parents' house. Their cat growled at him and he had to stay in the basement. So Miller found friends that let Tom stay in their barn at the north end of Black Forest where it was pasture and no trees.
"We thought he would be safe there for a while and in his element," Miller said. But evidently Tom didn't agree. He disappeared July 22.
"I wrote him off. The people who had the barn said there were a bunch of coyotes that lived in the area. And there were no trees for him to hide in."
But Allison didn't give up. "She said she could feel it, intuition, that he wasn't dead."
A friend, Sue Rademacher, put fliers all over the area. Sunday, a neighbor called and said Tom was under her shed but wouldn't come out.
The Millers spent hours rattling packages of his favorite treats and calling to him. They tried again Monday. They were despondently leaving when they heard a loud "merrrowwwl." Tom's head peeked out from under the shed. It took another 10 minutes of coaxing, until Tom pussyfooted over to them and flopped down. "It was like he was saying, 'Thank God, you found me,'?" Miller said.
Back with his family in their temporary rental home, Tom ate a big plate of tuna and took a cat nap.
He is emaciated, but at the rate he is scarfing down food, he should be back to fighting weight soon.
The Millers are rebuilding their home in Black Forest. Until it's finished, Tom will have to endure being an indoor city cat.
Tom's determination is inspirational, Miller said.
"Just the fact that he made it for seven years, and then made it through the fire, and then struggled for a month traveling through the trees. It gives us a reason to sit back and smile.
"This is what matters. The connections. His journey brought us to tears and smiles. He did all he could to get back."
Contact Carol McGraw: 636-0371