While hundreds of firefighters are stationed away from home to fight what is now the largest fire in California history, they have gone for weeks without seeing their own families or pets. So when eight therapy dogs showed up at Cachuma Firefighter Base Camp, the change of emotion in the air was almost palpable.
When the suffered the unthinkable loss of fellow firefighter, 32-year-old Cory Iverson, they were understandably devastated. Iverson died in the line of duty December 14 while battling the blaze just outside of Fillmore, California. Denise Fitzgerald, of Alliance of Therapy Dogs, knew she needed to organize a visit with the first responders.
“If I was in a situation where I couldn’t see my own dogs, being able to be with other people’s dogs would be the next best thing,” Fitzgerald said. “For just a short while, we brought a little piece of normalcy back to them. Their pets were definitely something they missed a lot from home.”
During the visit, Fitzgerald walked around with her 2-year-old English toy spaniel, Bingley. Firefighters kept taking out their cellphones to show her and the other handlers photos of their own dogs.
“I can’t tell you how many times they told us, ‘I can’t wait to be home to see my dogs again,’” Fitzgerald said.
The dogs let the firefighters relax and decompress, some were coming off 24-hour shifts. Dogs like Bear, a rescued bait dog, offered tail wags, belly rubs and comforting cuddles to everyone they met. The largest and the youngest dog there was Truman, an 8-month-old Irish wolfhound, a therapy dog in training.
Fitzgerald continued organizing visits over the next week, to more people affected by the fires, including another firefighter base camp, a dispatch station, and a Red Cross evacuation shelter.
“There are a ton of people working behind the scenes during emergencies like this,” Fitzgerald said. “Being a dispatcher is a really high-stress job, and they’re dealing with sending crews out to the fires on top of the regular daily calls they may get.”
The dispatchers had to step out to answer calls, but enjoyed the extra support from the dogs.
“It’s a unique comfort the dogs bring in,” Fitzgerald added. “They’re so accepting of anyone and everybody and just let people know that they are loved.”
The sentiments were needed as much as a Red Cross evacuation shelter in Santa Barbara that was housing families displaced by the fires. People hadn’t gotten the chance to return to their homes yet and were unable to know if anything remained after the fires had passed through.
The dogs made their rounds for two hours to make sure everyone got a chance to meet them. They were snuggling and getting pats from the temporary residents. With just a simple belly rub or tail wag, the dogs brought smiles to countless people’s faces including the employees working there.
Fitzgerald said one person who will stay with her was a young woman, who just like others, didn’t know what was left of her home. She stopped Fitzgerald and Bingley as they were about to head out the door.
“My dog let me know there was just something about this young woman — he knew she needed him,” Fitzgerald said. “We sat with her for a half-hour just talking and petting Bingley. What amazed me, was here she was not knowing what her life will look like tomorrow, yet she was so positive and upbeat. We visit a lot of people, but things like that are memories that stay with you forever.”
The recent fires hit home for Fitzgerald as a California native. She is already planning more therapy visits into the new year.
“It’s so great that organizations will open up their doors to us,” she said. “We feel blessed to be able to do this with our dogs.”
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