When Kathy Lampi’s mom died of cancer last June, she placed the velvet bag filled with her mom’s ashes on a shelf in her china cabinet. Lampi thought that was a fitting place for her mom to rest until she could plan a proper burial.
Then in October the Northern California fires reduced Lampi’s two-story house in Santa Rosa to six inches of rubble. Her mom’s ashes were now mixed in with the ashes of her sofa and front door.
“I thought, ‘Well, geez, I better get somebody out here to try and find her,’ ” Lampi said when she thought of the Army Corps of Engineers coming to clear the wreckage from her lot. “I didn’t want her to go to a landfill.”
Enter the archaeologists and forensic search dogs. Alex DeGeorgey and Mike Newland, both archaeology consultants in the Northern San Francisco Bay, joined forces with Echo, an English Labrador, and Annie, a Belgian Malinois, from the Institute for Canine Forensics, to look for lost urns and human cremains in the wildfire wreckage.
“We start imprinting them at a very young age and introducing that target odor,” said Kris Black, Annie’s trainer. “I feed her when she finds what her target source is.”
In this case, human bone.
The typical jobs for dogs from the institute have been on Native American tribal lands, looking for lost burial sites. They’ve been on special missions looking for the remains of Amelia Earhart and members of the Donner Party. This fall is the first time these kinds of dogs have been used to recover human ashes from wildfire disaster sites.
The dogs are brought into each wreckage site one at a time. At the remains of Kathy Lampi’s home, Echo, the English Labrador, went first. She sniffed around, her nose gliding over the ground with the speed and grace of an ice skater. When she found what she was looking for, she lay down next to it.
“There’s my alert,” said Karen Atkinson, Echo’s handler, as Echo rested by the remaining bricks of the front stairway. “So she’s telling me she’s made her decision.”
Echo went back to the truck, and Annie, the Belgian Malinois, did the search again from scratch, to try and guard against false positives. She lay down in the same spot Echo picked.
Once the dogs have narrowed down the site, the archeologists zero in. DeGeorgey and Newland zipped up their full-body Tyvex suits, grabbed their trowels and started digging.
“We’re looking for a pocket of ash that’s homogenous,” DeGeorgey said through a protective face mask. “It’s usually kind of a reddish brown.”
Sometimes, they find it. A discrete pile of red ash, with bits of bone or teeth in it. But 10 minutes in, DeGeorgey sighed. He said this is one of the hardest recoveries they’ve worked on.
“The deal here is, we’re trying to find ashes within ashes,” he said. “It’s not always that definitive.”
So far, the archeologist-canine teams have recovered nearly 50 sets of ashes from the wreckage of the Wine Country fires. But their efforts are all volunteer and they’ve been limited to working on the weekends. DeGeorgey thinks there are hundreds, maybe thousands more.
“I’m sure the scale of this issue is really an epidemic,” DeGeorgey said. “There are hundreds, if not thousands, of cremains in these burnt-out homes that are ending up in toxic waste sites.”
The process they’ve developed to identify cremains is new and not part of the cleanup protocol for FEMA or the Army Corps of Engineers. DeGeorgey said it should be. He wants these services to be available to victims of the wildfires in Ventura and San Diego counties, and any future fire, hurricane or earthquake.
DeGeorgey said when a disaster happens and people start filling out paperwork associated with insurance claims, one question should be: Did you have human remains in the house? If yes, he said it should trigger the cremains search process.
On site, DeGeorgey noticed Newland sweeping a lighter pocket of ash from Kathy Lampi’s stairway into a dustpan.
“What Michael’s showing us looks pretty good,” DeGeorgey said.
“A lot of it’s almost a texture thing,” Newland said, rubbing some ash between his fingers. “You can see how finely powdered this is.”
DeGeorgey scooped the ash into a gallon-size Ziploc bag. Annie came out for one last sniff around the site and immediately plopped down next to the bag. Kathy and her family cheered.
“You’re hired!” DeGeorgey joked, then walked the bag over to Lampi.
“Here’s your mom,” he said.
“Thank you very much,” Lampi said. “There she is. Wow.”
Lampi tucked the Ziploc bag under her arm.
“It’s nice to know that she’s been found, and now we can do the right burial for her,” she said. “I think everybody in the family wants to be able to go where she is and be with her.”