After a busy day on the job two years ago, firefighter Jordan Lide was relaxing with his crew mates in the open bay area of the Belmont Fire Department in Greenville, South Carolina, when he thought he heard a faint meowing sound coming from the grass behind the station.
When he went out to investigate, he discovered that the mournful cries were coming from a tiny orange-and-white kitten.
“He was malnourished and a little skittish, but he let me pick him up and as soon as I petted him just once, he was all over me,” Lide, 26, tells PEOPLE. “He jumped into my lap and I knew right then, there was no going back.”
Lide rummaged around in the refrigerator and found some leftover fried chicken for the kitten, followed by some tuna fish “stolen” from his comrades’ cupboards.
“I told the guys, ‘Looks like we have a cat,’ ” he says, “and after that, the little guy wouldn’t leave. We named him Flame the Arson Cat, after some school kids on a tour asked if he was a service cat. Somebody said, ‘Yeah, he’s an arson cat,’ and the name stuck.”
Lide wondered what the fire chief would think about Flame staying at the station, but he soon realized that he had nothing to worry about.
“We saw him petting Flame in the bay a few days later, so we all realized, ‘Okay, we’re good,’ ” Lide recalls. “He took to him quickly — just like the rest of us did.”
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As it turns out, so has everyone in Greenville, along with nearly 22,000 people who now follow Flame’s firehouse adventures on an Instagram page started by Lide.
“He’s always there to greet us first thing the morning,” Lide tells PEOPLE, “and when we’re out by the trucks, he’ll come and sit on the bumper. And whenever we go out on a call, as soon as we get back, he’ll come and rub all over the truck and check out the new smells. Nothing much scares him — not even the calls over the loudspeaker or the sound of the trucks starting up.”
Flame even likes water — a must for a fire station mascot, says Lide.
“He loves baths,” he says, “especially during the summer. He’ll just sit there and let you pour water over him. He’s a very relaxed cat.”
Flame has become a therapy cat of sorts, says Belmont Fire Chief Anthony Segars, providing a way for firefighters to destress a bit after a busy shift and put aside some of the tragedies they’ve witnessed as first responders.
“You walk into the apparatus bay, and you may find Flame on a truck, in a truck or under a truck,” Segars tells PEOPLE. “He owns his domain.”
Recently, Flame was featured on the popular Animal Planet show, My Cat from Hell, in a segment called “My Cat from Heaven.”
“Even for the guys you wouldn’t consider to be cat guys, he’s a huge mental break,” says Lide. “In a 24-hour shift, you sometimes see the worst side of society. But when you get back and pet Flame, he helps you to feel better.”
Flame has his own miniature helmet and fire pole scratching post, but he never accompanies crews on their calls.
“He likes to lounge around the station and run the show,” Lide says with a laugh. “Sleep is pretty important to him. After all, he’s a cat.”