Tireless Searchers: Cadaver Dogs in California

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.