Adam Deem was driving through burned brush in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest west of Redding when he spotted a black bear cub teetering oddly in the middle of the road.
It was Thursday morning, weeks into the state's fire siege. Deem, a forester with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, grabbed a camera from the back seat and took a few photos. Then he noticed that the cub's fur was singed. Its paws looked badly burned.
Worried, he mimicked the cub's cry to try to draw the mama bear close.
"He was crying, and between the two of us [crying], if the mother was anywhere nearby, she would have come," said Deem, 32.
He tracked the bear as it painfully climbed a tree. Still no mother bear. Deem decided to act. He got out of his truck, followed the cub through brush and scooped him out of the tree by the scruff.
"He was fighting, trying to bite and scratch me, and I tried to keep out of his way," Deem said. "Basically I tucked him under my arm, hiked up the hill, climbed up and called the command center."
A dispatcher could hear the agitated baby bear screaming and crying.
Deem drove one-handed to the base camp for the Moon fire, one of 158 started in the area by multiple lightning strikes nearly a month ago. The fires there have burned more than 29,000 acres so far and destroyed six houses.
At the camp, medics hooked the dehydrated cub up to an IV for fluids and treated its third-degree paw burns and a singed left eye. Deem held the cub, whom he had dubbed Lil' Smokey.
"He licked my neck a little bit and gave me little kisses," Deem said with a laugh.
Lil' Smokey, weighing 8 1/2 pounds and estimated to be 6 months old, is now at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care in South Lake Tahoe, one of the only centers in the state where cubs can be treated and taught survival skills until ready to return to the wild.
The cub is one of many animals affected by the more than 1,700 fires that have burned in California in the last month alone. Although wildlife experts said animals have adapted to fires over thousands of years by fleeing or seeking shelter, the earlier start to the fire season has put young animals at risk.
"We've seen more younger animals that are being impacted this year," said Steve Martarano, a spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Game. "We've got spring and summer fires because of the drought and other things. And there's a lot of wildlife that tends to be born in the spring."
At the center, caretakers clean and dress Lil' Smokey's burns. He spends his days bandaged, lying down and taking naps. The center has two other bear cubs, also about 6 months old, that weigh 35 to 40 pounds.
Lil' Smokey is fed "special bear formula," peaches, pears, grapes and plums intended to help him gain weight.
"He leans up and eats his food; he's a very good eater, which is good for him," said Cheryl Millham, a founder and executive director of the care center. "He's not walking around; he's got four burned feet . . . he's doing a lot of sleeping."
Fish is served in water, and giant worms and grubs are served in rotten logs so the cubs learn how things work in nature, skills that caretakers hope will let them return successfully to the wild.
"He doesn't have a mommy, so we will have to educate him like we do all our little cubs, teach him what a fish is, teach him about honey, what to do in the wild," Millham said. "He's got a lot of learning to do before he can ever be released."
Fire officials and others have tried searching for Lil' Smokey's mother without luck. "You have to wonder about the mother and what happened to her," Martarano said. "If the cub was burned, that means he was in the fire."
Officials hope to take the cub back into the wild in January or February and place him in a den for the hibernation period.
"When they wake up in the spring, they're wild," Millham said. "I think his prognosis is good. I think he'll make it . . . and if it wasn't for the guy, the fireman taking his time to pick him up, he'd be dead."
Some colleagues have questioned whether Deem, who has earned the nickname Grizzly Adams, made the right choice taking an animal out of the wild. But Deem said the cub reminded him of his two black Labradors at home in Anderson, Calif. He said he would do it again.
"I can't say that's right or wrong. All I can say is, when I was there, and I saw him, I just knew I couldn't leave him because he was gonna die, I knew that," Deem said. "And I thought, I can't explain it, something in my heart just turned and I said, I just need to give this guy a chance."