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Specialized dogs sniff out cremated remains lost in the ashes of Paradise

Holly J. McDede
Piper the border collie searches for human cremains in Paradise, California.

When the Camp Fire ravaged Paradise in November, the whole town was incinerated. Many who escaped the flames had to abandon precious valuables, and in some cases, also the cremated remains of people they love. Months after the fire, survivors are still hoping to find those cremains.

Judy Higgins stands next to her home that burned down in Paradise. She casually chats with a team of archaeologists about her dad’s ashes. She’s the kind of woman who can laugh in the face of death. After her dad died, died, she kept his cremains in a plastic box in her closet.  

Well hey, he had a family up there!” Higgins says with a laugh. “He was with his wife that died previously. Somehow I ended up with her ashes too.”

Piper and the Institute for Canine Forensics

Lynne Engelbert, an associate with the Institute for Canine Forensics, is here to search for those ashes. The Institute is a team of volunteer detective dogs, dog handlers, and archaeologists who can find cremains lost during wildfires. Like any good detective, Engelbert is searching for clues. She asks how and where the ashes were kept.

It sounds funny, but I tell people, next time you stay in someone’s guest room, ask who’s in the top shelf of their closet,” Engelbert says.

Credit Holly J. McDede / KALW
Piper, an eight-and-a-half-year-old border collie, is a rescue dog trained by Lynne Engelbert, an associate with the Institute for Canine Forensics.

Next, Engelbert brings out her dog, Piper, an eight-and-a-half-year-old border Collie. She introduces her as “Miss Piper.”

Piper is a small, black-and-white canine trained to sniff out cremains. She’s quiet because she’s concentrating. Piper is a professional.

A dog’s sense of smell is laser-focused: up to 100,000 times more powerful than any human’s. So with her nose as a guide, Piper heads towards what was once Higgin’s bedroom closet. After a few minutes, Piper sits down, signaling she’s found the scent of human cremains.

“This is one of the best things yet,” Higgins says. “It feels awesome. That’s my dad.”

Credit Holly J. McDede / KALW
Lynne Engelbert, with the Institute for Canine Forensics, rewards her border collie Piper for finding human remains.

Escape from the wildfire

Higgins’s dad died of cancer five years ago. She was with him up until the last day of his life. She took care of him while he was alive. When he died, she was responsible for what happened next, everything from planning the funeral to the cremation. She kept his ashes in her home, wanting to feel close to him. But now her home is gone.

Higgins was driving the school bus in Paradise when she got a call about a raging wildfire. She parked the bus and ran four miles to save her two dogs. She and her husband grabbed the animals and drove off.

Then we knew everything was on fire because everything started exploding around us,” Higgins says. “We didn’t think we were going to get out. We said our goodbyes, to our family, and I called my daughter.”

She exclaims, with a laugh, “And then our phones went dead, so everybody thought we died!”

But in the rush to escape, Higgins didn’t have time to grab her dad’s ashes. When she went back to Paradise, her house was totally incinerated. All that was left were a few pieces from her collection of pig figurines, and an old coffee mug, all still intact.

She heard about the Institute for Canine Forensics on Facebook and gave the group a call to see if they could help find her dad. So the archaeologists are here now, digging away.

Credit Holly J. McDede / KALW
Cremains found by the Institute for Canine Forensics.

How to find lost cremains

There are skeptics who say neither dogs nor humans can tell the difference between wildfire ash and human ash. But Engelbert says human cremains have a distinct texture and color.

“It can go anywhere from kind of a gray-white, which is what they normally are, to a creamy white color, to a creamy pink color and we’ve had some that are turmeric-orange,” Engelbert says.

The Institute for Canine Forensics is based in Woodside in San Mateo County. It launched in the late ‘90s to train dogs to sniff out old cemeteries and Native American burial sites. The group has since gone on to search for the remains of the Donner Party and Amelia Earhart.

Piper and the other pooches are trained with real human teeth and human bones.

“We start by teaching them, ‘This is what a human bone smells like, and you get a treat when you tell me about them!’” Engelbert says.

Credit Holly J. McDede / KALW
Lynne Engelbert, Historic Human Remains Canine Handler with the Institute for Canine Forensics.

Engelbert is really passionate. She puts her heart into this work and is willing to give her own body for these dogs.

“I tell people when I die, I want to be cremated and given to my training group, and go out to play with them,” Engelbert says.

A growing demand

After the Tubbs Fire hit Santa Rosa in 2017, the Institute began fielding calls from wildfire survivors desperate to find human cremains they left behind. The search team has been helping wildfire victims recover cremains ever since.

Last year, when the most destructive wildfire in state history struck Butte County, over 130 people asked the group to find cremains. The group never charges, and never says no.

These people have lost loved ones twice. Once when they first died, and now — the thought of these cremains going to a toxic dump is just devastating,” Engelbert says. “Not where they want their loved one.”

Remembering dad in a bottle of Jim Beam

Here in Paradise, the archaeologists dig and dig. After a couple of hours, though, the team starts to lose hope. They find what could be cremains, but only a small amount. They scoop them up and hand them to Higgins in a plastic bag. The archaeologists look defeated, but Higgins is smiling.

I feel a little relieved,” Higgins says. “I’ve convinced myself this is my dad, and the rest of him’s not going anywhere.”

Credit Holly J. McDede / KALW
Judy Higgins' home was destroyed during the Camp Fire. She and her husband search for the human cremains of her dad, and the cremated remains of their cat and two dogs.

Higgins plans to rebuild a home back in Paradise someday. She wants to set up a little memorial for her dad, and plant these cremains in her yard.

Luckily, she tells the group, she also has some spare cremains of her dad she kept in an RV. They’re inside a bottle of Jim Beam. She takes it with her when she goes traveling and sprinkles her dad’s ashes throughout the country.

“And I told him I was going to do that before he died,” Higgins says. “He said I was morbid.”

Putting a face to it

With that, Engelbert’s group takes off to their next mission, at what was once a mobile home. When they arrive, other archaeologists and dog handlers with the team are already at work. The group lifts up a collapsed roof.

Credit Holly J. McDede / KALW
The Institute for Canine Forensics search team search for the cremation of Betty Foor and Harry Foor's mom. They strategize about moving the collapsed roof.

Betty Foor and her brother Harry are hoping the team can find their mom’s cremains. Foor, a short woman in an army cap, holds up a picture of their mom.

“That’s my mom — ain’t she a sweetheart?” Foor says to the group.

“Hi Mom!” the archaeologists say back.

“You’ve got to put a face to it, don’t you?” Foor says, smiling.

Piper finishes up what Jasper started

Before the team arrived, a border collie named Jasper had helped find the scent of the cremains. Now Engelbert brings out Piper, and soon she wanders into the ashes. The dog lays down, signaling that she’s found the scent of cremains.

After that, the archaeologists relaunch the search. One of the volunteer archaeologists, Joanne Goodsell, sees something near Piper that catches her eye. She digs and finds fragments of bones. Suddenly, she starts to feel a texture that’s almost like sand or coffee beans. She goes to the siblings to tell them that she’s found the cremains.

Credit Holly J. McDede / KALW
Betty Foor cries with joy when she finds out the Institute for Canine Forensics have found her cremains.

“Oh, Piper,” Foor says to the border collie, starting to cry. “When people say you’ve just lost stuff, that’s not true. She’s not stuff, she was a real person. She cared for us, she was a good mother.”

Her brother, Harry Foor, nods and hugs her.

“Yep,” he says. “The best.”

A new response to natural disasters

Engelbert says finding cremains isn’t usually a priority in the aftermath of wildfires. She’s pushing to make this detention work part of FEMA’s standard response to natural disasters.

Credit Holly J. McDede / KALW
Jasper the dog, the unsung hero with the Institute for Canine Forensics who helped find the cremated remains of Betty Foor's mother.

“People need things that will help them heal,” Engelbert says.

The Institute for Canine Forensics is done for the day. Piper heads back into her crate for some alone time, and to recharge her nose. This dog has a lot of work ahead of her.