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This fire survivor shows ‘anybody, especially dogs, can be a thriver’ and help others

‘Survivor’ dog visits Camp Phoenix for children who suffered burns

Cora, a dog burned in a California wildfire, was adopted by Bellingham firefighter Beau Whitehead. The pair visited children who have suffered burns at Camp Phoenix in Whatcom County, Wash., on Aug. 15, 2019.
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Cora, a dog burned in a California wildfire, was adopted by Bellingham firefighter Beau Whitehead. The pair visited children who have suffered burns at Camp Phoenix in Whatcom County, Wash., on Aug. 15, 2019.

People use service dogs for a variety of reasons, but it’s rare that their pooch is a survivor itself.

At Camp Phoenix for burned children, however, a Bellingham firefighter’s dog, Cora, gives strength and hope to youngsters suffering from traumatic fire injuries.

“You think only humans can get burned,” said camper Sara Clevenger from Houston.

“It’s crazy how many people are burned in general, and then you see a dog and and you don’t even expect animals to get burned and have scars and stuff. It’s kind of comforting.”

Clevenger, 15, was burned on her forehead and shoulders by a grease fire at age 7.

She said the Lake Samish camp run by the Burned Children Recovery Foundation is her favorite because it was founded by a burn survivor and focuses on emotional healing.

It’s one of several camps around the country that she attends every summer.

“It really made me come out of my shell,” Clevenger said as she sat on the tailboard of an antique fire engine and stroked Cora’s yellow fur. “They understand what we went through. I like the emotional connection.”

Beau Whitehead of Bellingham Fire said he and his wife found Cora several years ago after their family’s dog died.

Cora, a yellow-colored German shepherd-pit bull mix who’s about 5 years old, was in a shelter near Los Angeles that was swept by a grass fire.

She suffered burns on her head and muzzle and lost both ears, and fur won’t grow on her face and parts of her body — spots where her mottled black and white skin shows.

“She’s not scared of fire at all,” Whitehead said. “ “She lays right next to the fireplace. The only thing she’s scared of is the garden hose. I think the firefighters used the hose on her to cool her off.”

Whitehead said he’s been bringing Cora to Camp Phoenix for three years, on a day when several other Bellingham firefighters volunteer to assist with activities.

Campers and staff members enjoy tickling Cora’s head and patting her body. Cora tolerates the attention, but she’s shy and stays near Whitehead’s side.

Like those at Camp Phoenix, Cora is scarred but it doesn’t define her life.

“Cora proves to me that,” said camper Devin Marquez of Dayton, Texas. “Coming from a victim to a survivor to a thriver, that’s the peak of where you can be in this kind of community.”

Robert Mittendorf covers civic issues, weather, traffic and how people are coping with the high cost of housing for The Bellingham Herald. A journalist since 1984, he’s also a volunteer firefighter for South Whatcom Fire Authority.
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