Another Kind of Rescue After the Wildfires

Volunteer archaeologists use dogs trained in forensics to help sort the ashes of cremated loved ones from the ashes and debris of burned homes.
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Cynthia Rowe, a resident of Paradise whose home was destroyed in the wildfire, with dog handler Lynne Engelbert before searching for the cremains of her husband, Derek Rowe.

Photos by Federica Armstrong

Northern California’s Camp Fire in Butte County became the deadliest wildfire in the last 100 years when more than 80 people died. The fire was contained by the end of November, but now wildfire survivors are urgently searching the debris for the cremated remains of family members kept in urns in some of the nearly 14,000 residences that were destroyed.

These “cremains” are now mixed in the ashes and debris of burned homes. The Federal Emergency Management Agency responds to natural disasters such as wildfires by removing debris and toxic substances. And for many families, the thought that these ashes could end up in a toxic waste dump adds to an already tragic situation.

A volunteer team of archaeologists is using dogs trained in forensics to help before the debris removal activities commence.

After the Santa Rosa Tubbs Fire in 2017, archaeologist Alex DeGeorgey teamed up with dog handlers and dogs from the Institute for Canine Forensics. So far, 243 sets of cremains from 181 homes in Paradise have been found, all by volunteers.

“The scale of this problem is beyond the scope of a volunteer effort. Our hope is that FEMA adopts a policy change to support cremains recovery as part of the standard response to wildfire disasters,” DeGeorgey says.

Cynthia Rowe, middle, is a resident of Paradise whose home was destroyed in the wildfire. In her house was an urn containing ashes of her husband, Derek. Rowe describes for dog handler Lynne Engelbert, right, and archeologist Joanne Goodsell, in white, where in the house the ashes were kept. They locate remnants of furniture and other objects that were in the same room. Derek Rowe died two years ago. The Rowes had been married for 28 years.

Piper, a border collie, is led through the debris of the Rowe home. Piper is one of several dogs trained to detect human ashes. These types of operations are new, and archaeologists are working to acquire data to improve the process in the field.

Archaeologists, from left, Robert Baun, Kia Campbell, and Goodsell wait with Rowe as the dog searches. All the people involved in the search volunteer their time and skills and service of the dogs.

After searching the area where the cremains were located, Piper sits, which alerts Engelbert that she detects the ashes.

Piper plays with Engelbert, while the team of archaeologists moves onto the site to begin recovering and confirming the cremains. Piper’s reward is playing with a rolled-up towel. The dog was a rescued stray that, in 11 months, was trained and certified as an “historic human remains detection” dog through the Institute for Canine Forensics.

Recovery is a painstaking operation. Cremains normally have a distinct color and consistency, but it’s difficult to locate them among the other ashes. Archaeologist Kia Campbell clears the space surrounding the cremains.

The team of archaeologists identifies a small fragment of bone.

Every urn contains a metal tag with a unique number identifying the name of the crematorium and individual. It’s confirmation.

Rowe is told that her husband’s ashes have been located. The return of cremains of loved ones can bring some solace and closure to people whose lives have been devastated by the fires.

The cremains are carefully separated from the debris, then readied for return to Rowe. The entire operation took less than two hours.

“I will never forget this moment,” Rowe says.