Counselors, Canines Helping Firefighters Battle Emotional Stress

2 min
Foley, a Labrador-retriever mix, mingles with firefighters at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. (Steven Cuevas/KQED)

Containment efforts are winding down for the wildfires that have ravaged Northern California this month, but not all the dangers have passed. A handout is circulating among firefighters that details the warning signs of extreme physical and emotional stress.

"There can be chills, thirst, fatigue nausea, nightmares, uncertainty, fear, guilt," explained Bob Ellis, a former Eureka fire battalion chief who now oversees a counseling program for Cal Fire’s Employee Support Services. He's helping coordinate a relatively new peer counseling program deployed in the field during a destructive wildfire.

Inside a long trailer at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, base camp for the wildfires burning in the North Bay, firefighters can speak to a counselor individually or a fellow firefighter about whatever they may want to get off their chest.

"People who have the same training, the same experiences, they can come together and they can talk," Ellis said. "The thing that we want people to recognize is they are not alone in this."

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There's been a lot of anguish and frustration surrounding these fires. Ellis said he's heard firefighters talk about leaving the profession, along with feelings of sadness and guilt in the peer counseling trailer.

"I think the biggest thing that's come out is just this feeling of helplessness," Ellis said. Firefighters are saying, "I felt like I couldn't do anything."

There’s also another form of field therapy being offered with less talking and more petting.

Cal Fire's Bob Ellis visits with Canine Companions for Independence handler Michelle Williams and therapy dog Foley. (Steven Cuevas / KQED )

"I am a fourth-generation Santa Rosan, and after being sad and grieving and being angry for a while we just decided, 'Hey, we got to help,' " said Michelle Williams of Canine Companions for Independence.

The Santa Rosa-based national organization approached Cal Fire about getting some dogs to circulate among the firefighters at base camp, even though they’re typically trained as assistance dogs for people with physical disabilities.

"Some of the firefighters that come up, they say, 'Oh my gosh I haven't seen my dog. Can I pet your dog?' " said Williams as "puppy-in-training" Foley sits obediently at her feet. "They're so happy to just pet a dog.”

Occasionally, it’s the therapy dog who seeks out the person.

“Of course if you've ever had a pet or a therapy dog, you know that dogs sense feelings, and that sometimes when someone is having a tough time the dog will go towards them. They can definitely sense it," Williams said.

Sometimes the dog may sense it even before the individual can.

"It may be months, it may be years later before somebody realizes, 'You know, I haven't slept well since that incident back there,' " explained Ellis.

Such feelings may not even be triggered until the next big fire, which is why Ellis and other counselors want to increase therapy for firefighters -- even after the flames of these fires have been fully extinguished.

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