Dogs help find ashes of loved ones after California wildfires

Lynne Engelbert and her border collie, Piper, no longer work in search and rescue. The physical demands of locating people in peril make it a profession for younger people, she says. So she and Piper have pivoted toward something less physically grueling: finding human remains after the California wildfires that have ravaged the state.

With noses 50 times stronger than a human’s, dogs can track the distinct smell of a decaying body just as easily as they can sense the sweaty odor of someone still alive (PBS).

But Piper isn’t trained to find the recently deceased, nor is any dog at the Institute of Canine Forensics (ICF) located in Northern California, where Engelbert is an associate. Rather, the dogs at ICF specialize in locating the remains of people who died long ago, even centuries back. Their expertise is known as “Historic Human Remains Detection” (HHRD). ICF mostly helps archaeologists identify American Indian burial grounds, which are scattered throughout California. 

“We never lose our human scent … our dogs are able to alert us on cremation burials that were done thousands of years ago,” says Engelbert.

But for the past year, Engelbert has returned to her disaster-relief origins by helping victims of California wildfires. Piper and Engelbert don’t search for bodies charred from the flames – that’s the job of “cadaver dogs,” a law enforcement service they’re often mistakenly lumped in with.

Instead, ICF teams help fire victims by locating the ashes of loved ones who were cremated long before a wildfire came through.

Piper searches for ashes under debris. (Photo courtesy of Lynne Engelbert)

With several thousand California homes burned to the ground in the past year, there’s been no shortage of requests for Piper’s services. Engelbert is currently planning a trip to Redding, California, where over 1,000 homes were destroyed in what has been only the third largest fire in the state in 2018.

Piper alerts Engelbert that she’s found human ashes amid wildfire ruins. (Photo courtesy of Lynne Engelbert).

Sniffing for ashes

Engelbert began helping wildfire victims after the Tubbs Fire in 2017. That blaze ravaged thousands of residences in Santa Rosa, California, including the home of Judy Morris. In an inferno hot enough to melt her “fireproof” safe, the porcelain urn that held the ashes of her late husband didn’t stand much of a chance.

“I made my peace with the situation, but the things you can never get back, that’s what hurts the most,” Morris told WikiTribune.

A week after fire had destroyed her home, Morris reluctantly agreed to meet with a team of archaeologists, trainers and dogs (which included Engelbert). Her skepticism dissipated when she learned they offered their services for free for wildfire victims.

Bailey searches Judy Morris’s Fountain Grove, California, property after the Tubb’s fire. (Photo from Judy Morris 2017)

After a search dog named Bailey sniffed around the jagged pieces of stucco that had once made up the exterior walls of her home, Morris remembers the golden Labrador stopping, spinning around and sitting in front of what appeared to the human eye to be a pile sand. Another dog was called over to the pile for a second opinion.

“I was shocked that my husband’s ashes were found in that mess. It was a miracle in a dark time,” says Morris, 10 months after the Tubbs fire.

Fuzzy science behind HHRD

Unlike typical cadaver dogs that sniff for the distinct smell of decomposing tissue, or the sweaty odor of someone still alive, HHRD dogs rely on the faint scent of bone to find human remains.

The science behind HHRD isn’t fully understood. But a number of clinical trials have shown dogs can be trained to detect traces of human bone well over 100 years old, and beneath as much as six feet of soil (U.S. Army Corp of Engineers).

Scientific debate revolves around which chemicals the dogs are detecting. Once dogs identify where ashes could be located, the human eye can often discern the white and pink dust that typically signifies cremated bone and flesh.

Lynne Engelbert and Alex DeGeorgey scoop the cremated ashes of a client’s loved one. (Photo provided by Lynne Engelbert)

Engelbert says her team has developed a sound procedure for finding cremated remains after a natural disaster. Their post-fire protocol largely follows the same non-invasive method dogs use to identify ancient burial grounds.

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