The fires moved fast and burned hot. In the end, all that was left of many houses were piles of ash and twisted metal pipes. Even porcelain sinks and toilets were incinerated in the flames. The devastation was swift, and it was total. But thanks to a courageous and concerted response by firefighters and law enforcement, almost everyone in the path of the blaze made it out alive. Almost.
Mid-October 2017 was the deadliest week of fires in California’s history. Fire officials estimate the 245,000 acre blaze left at least 44 California residents dead, from Sonoma and neighboring counties. Many others could not be located in the chaos following evacuation. Over the next few days, their family members gathered and waited, anxious for information, hoping for a miracle. They desperately needed to know what had happened to their loved ones.
California residents Casey Rogers and Eric Sheets are both volunteer cadaver dog team handlers who worked the devastating Northern California wildfires. I wanted to know how they find the strength to do this difficult work of finding the bodies—or in these cases, the bone shards—the only remaining clues to reveal the end of a life after these catastrophic fires.
Rogers is the kind of person you hope might be your neighbor. A lieutenant for the Alameda County Search and Rescue Team, Rogers and her husband Mitch went through the CERT program together, to be ready to respond in a disaster. But that wasn’t enough for them. As she says, “My husband and I were looking to give back more to our world than just when a natural disaster happens. I ended up joining CARDA, (The California Rescue Dog Association) and then Alameda County Search and Rescue. Everything we do is one hundred percent volunteer. We buy our own equipment and uniforms. I work a sixty-hour-a-week job as well.”
Casey Rogers working with Inkie at the Sonoma Fires
Photo Credit Mitch Rogers
Rogers got her start in 2013, with her black German Shepherd puppy, Inkie, who was just 11 weeks old at the time. It took them about two years of focused work to get Inkie up to speed on his training. The first step was to get them both certified in Area, in which they must locate any live person in a given area of 120 acres. The next step was for them to be certified in large-search cadaver searches, and then a year later they were certified in locating small-source cadaver remains.
This is a one-acre test where Inkie and Casey have to find buried and surface human remains. They, like other teams, will continue to hone their skills on locating bone, teeth, and cremains.
Although the hours are long, the expense is considerable, and the work is tough, Casey Rogers wouldn’t have it any other way. “It is just amazing how these dogs can find a tooth or a bone buried three feet down,” she says. “Whether we find someone alive or just provide closure for the family, it’s incredibly rewarding.”
When I ask her to tell me about her experience during the recent fires, Casey Rogers describes scenes from an inferno that consumed everything in its path. When she arrived at the Tubbs fire, the air was hot and thick, the smell of smoke was pungent, and active fires were burning all around them. Melted aluminum car rims flowed down the street like a river of mercury. Rogers recalls an air of unsettled calm.
“I don’t know how to describe the devastation,” she says. “It burned a hundred yards every three seconds. It was two o’clock in the morning when the fires came through. People grabbed their car keys and watched their house burn as they drove away.”
Of course, as humans were smelling acrid smoke and ash, the dogs were also inhaling the fumes of death. “It was overwhelming for us. It was nothing we could train for or prepare for. It must have been completely overwhelming for Inkie. He did find someone that day. He identified human remains—small bones. For a dog to find a bone that is two inches long under all that ash? It’s amazing. I don’t know how he does that. We were searching in two story houses—only now they were 12 inches deep. There was nothing left; maybe a metal staircase was left standing. In some ways it wasn’t personal. There were no pictures on the walls, nothing. Somehow, it made it a little easier.”
Seeing whole neighborhoods wiped out was devastating. But for the cadaver dog teams, there is comfort in doing what needs to be done. As Rogers says, “We went in and did our job. At this point, the dogs shift gears. They know it’s serious business.”
Inkie knew. Like good K9s everywhere, Inkie has the ability to understand and adapt to what his work demands. Rogers explains, “He loves his job, and he knows when it’s time to go to work. During a real search, something clicks and he’s a completely focused animal.”
That focus pays off at these terrible times, when a person has gone missing and their family is waiting to find out the truth. Casey and Inkie gave everything they had to locate the remains of the missing. Of the Tubbs fires, she says, “We were there for 72 hours. We came home and slept and came back.” In order to minimize the impact on the dogs, the handlers made a rule that they could only work two to three days in a row. But the work takes a toll.
I ask Casey Rogers how she copes on a personal level. “One of the people we were able to find, their family had been looking from them since Monday morning, and we found them on Saturday. The family had been going from shelter to shelter. They were able to not do that any more. The family knows for sure they were lost in the fire. To be able to give that family closure, it makes it all worth it.”
But both K9 and human pay a price. I want to know how Inkie coped in the days right after the fire.
“He was depressed for a couple of days. He was lethargic. So I made everything super easy and super fun. I made it so he didn’t have to look for stuff. Generally, he loves to work. I was just reinforcing that life is fun again. I have not gone back to intense work with him yet. By now he’s back to his bubbly bouncy puppy self.”
She’s recovered too. “Seeing Inkie go from a little depressed to back to himself was probably my therapy. We’ve done some pretty intense scenes. After these events, I would watch him just walk over and get his toy, but not really having a grip on it. When he’s enthusiastic, he’ll catch it in the air. He loves to tug, he’ll start talking, growling, smiling, he’ll do flips to get it. You can tell when he’s smiling, his tail is in the air and he bounces over to get his toy.
Inkie At Work
Photo Credit Mitch Rogers
The public really doesn’t understand how much work goes into getting a cadaver dog certified to search, or how many teams work together to find an individual. Rogers says, “I’ve had so many people ask me, ‘How many people has he found?’ But it’s a team effort. If we have five dogs working for finding one person, four dogs won’t find that person, but we’re all working together.”
The work is intense, and it has no end, as long as a dog team is out on the road. “Literally, we train 4-5 nights a week. I put 15 or 20 thousand miles a year going to trainings and so on. No one has a concept of that. None of us would change anything, but it’s a big commitment—the food, the vet bills, the chiropractic bills—it’s hard for people to understand it. In Sonoma, to do this work, returning two people to their families, it’s been a five-year journey. There’s the training, the time away from my family, missed holidays, missed birthdays. My daughter’s standing in front of me, smiling. She knows.”
Both Casey Rogers and Eric Sheets emphasize that search and rescue is not a hobby—it is a calling. Each situation is a mystery waiting to be solved. Like Rogers, Eric Sheets finds great meaning in the work he does as a cadaver dog handler. A Coast Guard Veteran, Eric Sheets currently has two working dogs, Seven and Scarlett. Both are Australian Cattle Dogs, as were his first two, Bandit and then Tiger. I have to ask why he had a dog named Seven Eric Sheets laughs. “He was the seventh dog out of six in a litter. The owners went to bed and their dog delivered one more in the morning. He’s lucky Seven. Seven’s had eight and a half years of work. He’s certified in Area, Cadaver, Water, and Avalanche. He just loves to work with me.”
Eric Sheets with Seven
Photo Credit Denise Blackman
Eric’s breed of choice is Australian Cattle Dogs. As he says, “I like a dog that is forgiving, but loves to work and puts work with his partner above pretty much anything else. Australian Cattle Dogs can be challenging for an inexperienced handler. They aren’t huggable. They are hard-driven, but devoted to their partners. I just love the drive and the independent thinking and how much they own their work. There’s pretty much nothing like it, to have a dog out there, hunting, looking for a target odor, and negotiating with me.”
Like Casey Rogers, Eric Sheets has supports in place to help him recalibrate after a search: “After so many missions, some tragic, some great rescues and others unsuccessful, I ride the ups and downs out by talking with my wife, Kim, and my team mates, who know what it’s like. My wife is always there for me, while we’re succeeding or struggling with whatever we are facing. She’s my anchor. I could not do this without her. And I would not be doing this without close team mates that I trust.”
Sometimes the story of a search ends happily. On the third day, Sunday, we searched two lots where investigators were looking for missing residents from the fire. On both occasions, our dogs searched thoroughly and did not give any indication of odor, nor did they alert. On the first assignment, we got word before searchers started sifting that the residents were found alive and well. On the second, we searched, and we got nothing. and after an hour of searchers sifting the ashes by hand, we got word that the resident was alive and well. We all cheered.”
Eric brought Seven to the Tubbs fire to the Journey’s End Trailer Park and Fountain Grove on Friday, October 13. On Saturday, the team searched Mark West, and on Sunday, they were sent to Coffee Park and Mark West again. The smoke burned his eyes and throat, and Eric thankful that Seven managed three consecutive days of work without any lingering effects. He was also thankful to be working with a SAR team he knew and trusted, and focused on the task at hand and keeping his dog from getting hurt. But it was a scene of inferno. Eric recalls:
“Once out in the field, I was stunned by the destruction. We had nails and other sharp metal debris in the ash, holes to keep from stepping into, smoldering trees nearby to stay clear of in Journey’s End (one of which fell right after the team noticed it and moved away), burned through and snapped power poles, hanging power lines, and transformers hanging upside down from them leaking coolant.” To make matters worse, “while letting my dog out on a potty break away from the residences, Seven stepped on a large, angry nest of ground wasps (affectionately called meat bees). We got bitten and chased quite a ways before jumping in one vehicle and then another as they pursued us.”
From burned-out inferno to pursuit by meat bees, Eric and Seven put in hard time to help families find answers. Like Casey, he does not discuss the people he and Seven find. To maintain the highest level of professional integrity in the work they do, they respect the privacy of the families involved.
Eric points out that negative finds are also an essential piece of information for searchers. Knowing that there were no victims at a specific location allows family members to continue searching until they find their loved one elsewhere. Either way, he is proud of Seven for his detective work, and knows he can trust his dog, and the expertise his dog brings to each situation.
We can count on the fact that there will be more fires. As bad as things can be, the courage and dedication of volunteer K9 teams like Casey Rogers with Inkie and Eric Sheets, with Seven, makes the difference between closure for a family versus ongoing, endless painful hope. As Eric says, “Whether it’s a kidnapping, someone at risk, or a missing hiker, I want to do something to help and not just sit there watching the TV.”
Eric Sheets with Scarlett
Photo Credit Denise Blackman
The recent fires have made it clear how vulnerable we are, and how much we need one another. These K9 volunteers and their amazing dogs, who ask for nothing and give back so much, are an incredible asset to their communities. Bone by bone, shard by shard, dogs like Inkie, Scarlett and Seven reveal the answers to the mystery of a missing person, the scorching end of the story of a life.
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About the Author:
A dual American/Canadian citizen born in Vancouver, raised in and near Seattle, and currently living in Toulouse, France, Rachel Rose is the author of four collections of poetry and a memoir, The Dog Lover Unit: Lessons in Courage from the World’s K9 Cops, (St. Martin’s Press) which was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis award for best non-fiction crime book, 2018. A former fellow at The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (http://iwp.uiowa.edu/residency), she is the Poet Laureate Emerita of Vancouver.
Canine psychologist Dr. Stanley Coren, author of numerous books and over 500 scientific publications on dog psychology, encourages others to participate in our petting events. Also read about the research on the impact our therapy dogs are making at the University of British Columbia.
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