Crews battling the Minerva fire in Quincy this month got some help from an age-old remedy for exhaustion and homesickness: the company of dogs and cats.
Firefighters camped beside the Plumas County Animal Shelter and soon became regular visitors. Within a week, a German Shepherd mix named Bear had found a new owner.
“I kind of fell in love with him,” said Tomaka Zermeno, a firefighter from Vancouver, Washington, who’d been dispatched to Northern California. “You could tell the dog took to me right out of the gate.”
Zermeno, 42, has been fighting fires throughout the western U.S. since he was 18, when he first joined Tom Fery Farm Inc. Fire Crew, a private contractor. The fire veteran said he took a liking to Bear because the dog seemed like an “oddball,” with endearing canine quirks.
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Zermeno recalled a shelter staff member telling him: “We have this one dog in the back. Hardly anyone ever takes him out because he’s so big,” Zermeno estimated Bear’s weight at 80 or 90 pounds.
As Zermeno petted Bear in the shade outside the shelter and rolled his Kong toy, the staff member warned the firefighter he’d need strong arms to rein in Bear when the dog pulled on his leash.
“Eh, I run a chainsaw all day,” Zermeno replied.
Lee Anne Schramel, a spokeswoman for Plumas National Forest, said owners of support animals sometimes bring their dogs to fire camps to help ease the firefighters’ strain. It was “serendipity” that those fighting the Minerva fire camped next to an animal shelter, she said.
“After people have been away from their home bases for a long time, combined with the rigorousness of the physical exercise every day, it’s truly comforting to pet a dog,” she said. “It just makes a huge difference. They miss their pets at home.”
According to Schramel, the roughly 1,500 personnel camped out in Quincy at the height of the Minerva blaze came from as far away as Arizona and New Mexico. The 4,000-plus acre fire began July 31 and was fully contained by mid-August, she said.
Melissa Bishop, supervisor at Plumas County Animal Services, recounted that a leader at the fire camps approached her about letting crews visit the shelter, saying it would boost morale.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, absolutely,’” Bishop said. “It would lift the dogs’ morale too.”
She estimates 20 firefighters came each day – a lot of attention for a small shelter that typically houses about 10 dogs and 20 cats. When someone asked Bishop a few days later about walking the dogs through camp to interact with more crew members, Bishop posted a call for volunteer walkers on Facebook.
The first night, Bishop said, it was just her, her husband and her son walking the dogs. But the next day, a dozen people from the Quincy area came to help.
“For a while they thought the whole town was going to burn down,” Bishop said. “[Walking the dogs] was their way of thanking the firefighters for saving their town.”
The walking had just begun when the firefighters, their work finished, began to pack up, she said.
Zermeno adopted Bear a day after meeting him – once he got his wife’s permission. Bear left with Zermeno, riding along in a truck. But Zermeno had to make quick plans for Bear’s transport home when, 50 miles into the journey, he was assigned to another fire in Happy Camp.
Bear was not allowed to go to the new fire, Zermeno explained, so Zermeno’s boss called around to find someone who would keep the dog overnight. A firefighter friend drove down from Salem, Oregon, to pick Bear up and deliver him to Zermeno’s home in Washington.
Last Friday, after seven days at Happy Camp, Zermeno reunited with his new dog at home, where Zermeno’s five kids were thrilled with their pet. Zermeno said his family always wanted a dog but had trouble finding one who won’t bolt or rip up the furniture.
Bear may be big like his namesake but is well-behaved, according to Zermeno. He rolls onto his back begging for belly rubs and rushes to accompany Zermeno’s three older children – ages 10, 13 and 15 – when they go out. He’ll have a spacious backyard to play in when the family moves into a new home at the end of the year.
“We’re going to love him to death,” Zermeno said.