Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Friday, Sept. 8, 2023 @ 12:19 p.m. / Community, Emergencies, Fire

Zelda Provides A Helping Paw to Crews Battling Local Wildfires, Needs Votes in 'Calendar Dog' Contest

Zelda, a First Responder Therapy Dog, greets firefighters at Gasquet's Ward Field near the Smith River Complex fires. | Courtesy of Krystol Berry

Zelda can bring even the toughest firefighter to their knees, though her mom says she’s pretty stoic about it.

Between 200 and 300 firefighters battling the Smith River Complex gave the 7-year-old Chesapeake Bay-Labrador retriever mix love when she visited Ward Field in Gasquet last week. They gave ear scratches, conversed with her in baby talk and threw a tennis ball — one of her great loves, according to her First Responder Therapy Dogs profile.

But, while she was friendly with all of them, Zelda knew when someone needed something more, Krystol Berry told the Wild Rivers Outpost.

“There were a couple people that got down on their knees and started scratching her and she stuck her nose on their neck and got affectionate,” Berry said. “She sensed they just needed something. She’s very affectionate with her family, but it’s good for her to be able to tap into how people are feeling and then respond in a way that helps them.”

Zelda, who became a certified First Responder Therapy Dog in October, is also competing in a photo contest. Her goal is to be a calendar girl and to raise funds for the San Rafael-based nonprofit organization.

Zelda was trained to respond to search and rescue and structural collapse calls with the Fort Dick Volunteer Fire Department. But with her husband Matt now at CalFire stationed at the High Rock Fire Camp near Hoopa, Berry said she’s more interested in first responder mental health.

Berry herself became certified as a First Responder Coach in February.

“Our role is to touch people before they get into a position where they need therapy,” she said. “When you’re in a position where you’re stuck in negative feelings or don’t know what to do to get out of a rut, we are coaches and we can catch them at that point and walk them through a process of what they need to do, all according to their personal values and their own personal goals.”

Berry said she’s trying to get the word out that first responder coaching exists.

“Because it’s a new thing, not a lot of people have heard of it,” she said. “I left literature with local (fire) stations and left literature with the folks at incident command at the fairgrounds. I offered coaching services free of charge. I’d be happy to help.”

Zelda hopes to make her debut as a calendar dog, but needs votes. | Photo courtesy of Krystol Berry via First Responder Therapy Dogs


A total of 2,338 firefighters are currently battling the Smith River Complex wildfires. The result of roughly 150 lightning strikes across the Six Rivers National Forest on Aug. 15, the Smith River Complex consisted of 12 confirmed fires in the Gasquet Ranger District.

California Interagency Incident Management 15 assumed command of the fire complex on Aug. 18 and Northwest Incident Management Team 13 assumed command of Oregon side of the fires.

Last week, Southwest Area Incident Management Team 2 took over command of the southern portion of the complex while Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team took over command of the northern portion on Wednesday.

The Smith River Complex has been mapped at 85,543 acres and is 19 percent contained as of Friday. Firefighters are implementing multiple plans for suppressing the fires, including a direct and indirect attack by building dozer and hand lines.

Firefighters are also building containment lines, laying hose and clearing debris and planning strategic firing operations to remove unburned fuel. They’re also planning for emergencies as well.
Fire behavior is expected to increase due to warmer and drier weather, according to the update.

According to Berry, getting Zelda trained as a first responder therapy dog wasn’t easy. The first step was for Zelda to pass her AKC Canine Good Citizen test, proving she has good manners and can function in public without barking or growling at any other animals.

“There’s also a checklist of first responder specific things like can your dog be present when a siren is going off,” Berry said, adding there are large trucks, a lot of people, fire hoses all over the place and a cacophony of smells that can be overwhelming to a dog. “If you’ve got a dog that’s kind of anxious or real flighty that dog (might be) better equipped for one-on-one type of therapy.”

Berry said she had to take classes on the incident command system as well as the hierarchy of positions in the fire camps.

Zelda is available for any department, including local law enforcement, Berry said. Zelda has also visited the CalFire offices in Fortuna, visiting with dispatchers and people working in the office to give them a break.

On Aug. 29, one of the final days for California Interagency Incident Management Team 15, Zelda showed up at Ward Field in Gasquet at about 6:30 a.m. She and her mom hung around for the briefing and, while many firefighters had had a good night’s sleep, you could tell they had been working hard.

“Nobody was boisterous and running around. Everybody was doing their thing,” she said. “You can see the physical toll and the mental toll it takes to do this day-in and day-out. This is just really hard work.”


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