Canine heroes volunteer at Camp Fire

Wall-E (left) and Gunner (right) travel to Chico to comfort the victims and the first responders of the Campfire. The fire was officially contained by Nov. 25.

MORONGO BASIN — Two unlikely local heroes with wet noses and big hearts traveled to the FEMA Disaster Relief Center (DRC) in Chico last weekend to support victims and first responders affected by the Camp Fire. Those heroes were dogs Gunner and Wall-E.

Gunner and Wall-E are owned by Joshua Tree resident Laura Finion and Yucca Valley resident Katie Priest respectively. They are a part of the HOPE Animal Assisted Crisis Response Dog Team — a national nonprofit that has been working since 2001 to bring comfort to the victims of disasters. Trained as therapy dogs, the teams can be deployed by FEMA or other organizations to disaster areas.

“We went up on Friday and worked three long days in the DRC,” said Finion, Gunner’s owner. “We were there with clients who had lost their homes and lost everything. The fire came so fast that most of the victims were only able to save what they had on hand.”

Finion adopted Gunner as a puppy seven years ago. From the beginning, she knew that she wanted to train him as a therapy dog and she said he had the perfect temperament for it — relaxed and naturally empathetic.

After Gunner worked as a therapy dog for a few years, he and Finion were certified as a HOPE team and now they travel to trauma locations to bring comfort to those who need it most.

“Medically speaking, studies have shows that petting a dog can bring someone’s heart rate down,” Finion said. “Sometimes people just pet the dog and don’t say a word but that’s enough for them.”

Locally, Gunner and Finion are members of the Joshua Tree Search and Rescue Team and when people go missing, Gunner visits the family members or the search team to help keep their spirits up.

Up at the Camp Fire, Gunner and Wall-E worked 10-hour days for three days straight comforting first responders and individual victims. Many of the families in the Disaster Relief Center had lost their animals in the fire and petting the dogs was an emotional experience for them, said Finion.

“Some of it was just standing with people in line,” Finion said. “The people at the DRC had to wait in a lot of lines to get resources, which can be stressful and tiring, so the dogs helped them, especially the children.”

The team traveled back to the Morongo Basin on Tuesday, only two days after the fire was declared completely contained, and while the fire is now out many families are still in need of housing and resources and many pets were left lost and without homes.

Gunner, Wall-E, Finion and Priest also brought with them to the DRC money and blankets for the thousands of animals affected by the fire. The donations, given by an array of Morongo Basin community members who heard about their trip, went to the North Valley Animal Disaster Group, which is providing care for thousands of animals of all kinds that have been affected by the Camp Fire.

To donate to the North Valley Animal Disaster Group visit https://www.nvadg.org.

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