Tahoe firefighter's photo with baby kangaroo melts hearts
RENO, Nev. (AP) — If a picture is worth a thousand words, one viral photo of a Reno-area firefighter must be worth a million.
It was an image of Capt. Dave Soldavini, a U.S. Forest Service firefighter, cradling a baby kangaroo in his arms.
“It is the cutest picture I’ve ever seen of him,” his wife, Daphne Osell, told the Reno Gazette Journal . “You can see it in his face. I think that’s what so many people responded to. You can really see and feel how enamored he is of this little animal he’s holding.”
In the photo, Soldavini is smiling as he looks down at the baby kangaroo, called a joey.
Soldavini recently returned from his deployment to Australia, where he helped battle massive wildfires that killed at least 33 people and destroyed 3,000 homes.
Firefighters and equipment were flown in from the United States, Canada and New Zealand, among other places. Soldavini, who traveled in January, was the only firefighter from the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit deployed overseas.
Since his return earlier this month, the photo has been shared throughout social media, and he’s been featured on TV.
Osell, an art teacher at Lake Tahoe Community College, initially posted the picture on her Facebook page. She then noticed that the U.S. Forest Service shared it.
“Then it was popping up all over the place,” Osell said. “Friends were calling me telling me, ‘He’s on TV!’
“I thought it was pretty hilarious because he’s just not that guy. He’s not that guy on social media promoting himself at all.”
Soldavini said he and his crew were driving up the Tambo River Canyon through burned communities, houses and “nasty destruction.” As they drove, it started to drizzle.
“It was really serendipity,” he said, adding it was supposed to be windy and 115 degrees. He referred to himself and his crew as Australia’s “lucky charm.”
On his first day there, Soldavini and his team visited a rural community in Victoria, Australia. The area had been ravaged as volunteer firefighters spent the previous 48 hours putting out fires in homes around the area.
“They were working around a house and things were calming down, and a little joey started following one of the gents around,” Soldavini said. “He was sort of asking for help.”
One of the firefighters scooped up the abandoned baby kangaroo and was waiting for a local law enforcement officer to pick it up.
Soldavini said the officer, who spent his spare time rescuing injured animals, previously saved a mother kangaroo that was paralyzed in a traffic accident. The plan was to have the kangaroo act as a foster mother for the joey.
“We were hanging out, and it was just the cutest little thing,” Soldavini said of the baby kangaroo. “He just wanted to cuddle. You can tell that somehow, he knew he was safe. He was letting down his guard and relaxing.”
Soldavini said the joey was wrapped in a blanket and placed in the back of a fire truck so it could nap.
“People were touched by it, and I got more than a few random hugs and tears from people who recognized it,” Soldavini said of the photo.
A Wisconsin woman even painted a portrait of the photo and auctioned it for $2,000. The money was donated to help with fire relief efforts.
Fiona Cox, 15, said she was also in awe of the photo of her stepfather.
“My heart melted,” Cox said. “It was so cute. I thought it was amazing that he had that opportunity.”
Still, it wasn’t the only photo Soldavini had taken of himself with a kangaroo. He also has a picture of himself saying goodbye to another, older joey. In that photo, he’s kneeling next to a kangaroo with bandaged feet.
“This became a symbol of what we're able to do,” Soldavini said. “We fought the fire, but a lot of it was just helping people and, in this case, this little joey.”
Soldavini said he felt touched by the overwhelming support, locally and nationally, for firefighters in Australia.
“I think it’s wonderful,” he said. “It allows me to re-engage my job and remember that we’re all stuck in this life together. Whatever we can do to help each other is time well spent.”