Fireman Kevin Brown was on the front lines for 11 straight days facing the flames of wildfire in southern California.
His body was exhausted. His mind faded. Rejuvenation was wanted, but it had to wait. Brown and his fellow firefighters were called in to fight another wildfire that had broken out in the Bay Area.
The team packed up their gear, hopped in the fire truck, and made the hour-long drive north to the SCU Complex Fire, which is burning in the hills outside of San Jose.
When the locomotive pulled into a parking lot at Base Camp of the Fire, Brown received the much-needed push from a new four-legged friend on four legs: Micah, a golden retriever who served as a therapy dog.
“The moment we pulled into SCU base camp, Micah was waiting for us,” said Brown. “It was the perfect thing we needed to get rid of all the hard work and remodel ourselves before we could start a whole new level of working on a brand new fire.”
Micah is one of a growing number of therapy dogs running around California wildfire base camps these days, providing a vital distraction for firefighters from the grueling work they spend on the front lines for days.
“I can tell you from my own experience when we left this line of fire around 7 a.m. after getting up for about 30 hours straight, as tired as we are, and seeing the dogs at the entrance to the base.” Camp is one of the best, most enthusiastic and positive shots we can have, “said Brown.
PHOTOS: Therapy dogs make firefighters happy at Caldor Fire Base Camp
During the morning briefings at base camps for some of the biggest fires, the dogs and their handlers will traverse the cafeteria lines or circling the parking lot where the fire engines sit, offering welcoming eyes and an infectious smile.
“They take in whatever the firefighter wants to put out,” Brown said. “Some firefighters just come over and give them a quick pet. Other firefighters sit with them, spend five minutes with them and let the dogs snuggle up to them. “
Everyone loves the dogs. It doesn’t matter what is going on. When you have a dog around, you see grown men transform back into small children and get super excited.
Fireman Ricardo Tlapala
Heidi Carman, herself a dog handler and founder and CEO of First Responder Therapy Dogs, a nonprofit that employs therapy dogs to provide emotional support to first responders, said that she and her golden retriever Kerith when they visited firefighters.
Ear-to-ear smiles and childlike laughter are common.
“I get a lot of laughter,” said Carman. “Lots of people laugh when they stroke them. They laugh and smile together.”
Sometimes tears of joy flow down faces.
“That Cal Fire firefighter saw Kerith and she was probably so exhausted she just collapsed and cried,” said Carman. “There were tears of joy, but she just cried and buried herself in Kerith.”
Tears of grief are also shed.
During a recent visit to a forest fire base camp near Lake Tahoe, a firefighter approached Carman and Kerith and shared heartbreaking news with them.
“He looked at me and just said quietly, ‘I had to euthanize my dog two weeks ago.’ Then he immediately got on his knees, buried his head in Kerith and just started crying, “said Carman. “He cried a bit and then he looked up at me, wiped his eyes and since he was still on Kerith’s level he just said ‘thank you’ and then walked away.”
When they pet Kerith, they tell me that they miss their home and their families and their dogs.
Heidi Carman, founder and CEO of First Responder Therapy Dogs
However the firefighters react in their interactions with the dogs, it helps, according to Elisabeth Van Every, Senior Communications Specialist and Editor-in-Chief at Pet Partners, another organization dedicated to improving people’s wellbeing with the help of therapy animals.
“There is research showing that petting an animal can reduce stress hormones and improve general well-being,” said Van Every. “It is very common for people who have the opportunity to visit a therapy animal to feel less stressed and to have their mind clear.”
Even if few, if any, words are shared between firefighters and handlers, the dogs still make a difference.
“Once in a while [the firefighters] like to talk to the animal when it has the opportunity, because the animal will never judge it by its feelings, “said Van Every.” That can give you an additional stress reliever.
As firefighter Ricardo Tlapala explained, firefighters are constantly focused on helping others who often forget to take care of themselves. And when it’s time to talk about their feelings, wiping the emotions off with silence can be a routine response.
“We’re trying to de-stigmatize that,” said Tlapala, who also works on a peer support team in his home department. “We’re trying to change the culture where you just bottle everything and keep it inside and not really talk about it. We’re really involved, especially with our newest recruits, ‘Hey, it’s fine. These things are going to affect you. They burden you. ‘”
Spending just a few minutes with a therapy dog can make firefighters take the next step to seek help, Van Every said.
In all fairness, peer support and mental health programs are becoming increasingly popular in our industry, which is a fortunate thing. I think it’s long overdue.
Fireman Kevin Brown
Carman and Van Every aim to send even more therapy dogs and dog handlers to forest fire base camps in the future.
“The need for this is growing rapidly,” said Van Every.
Tlapala wouldn’t mind seeing more furry friends in the camp.
“It’s unconditional love that they give you,” he said. “They just bring you out of this engaged state for a moment, let you be free, a kind of reset. Then you can get involved again. It’s good for the soul. “