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Archeologists use canine forensics to find cremated remains after wildfire

On the left, a women is standing amidst the ashes and debris of a burnt-down home. She is wearing protective gear, including rubber boots, a tyvek suit and a face mask. She is bending down to look at a small pile on ashes. Right in front of her, a black and white dog is sniffing the same pile of ashes.
Roman Battaglia
Jefferson Public Radio
Lynne Engelbert and her dog Piper investigate a pile of ash they suspect could be the cremated remains of Kelly Greer's husband. An urn containing his ashes was lost during the McKinney Fire.

After wildfire season ends in the Western U.S., those who lost their homes begin sifting through what’s left to recover as much as they can. After the McKinney Fire this past summer, a team of trained dogs and archeologists helped recover cremated remains left in urns that were lost in the fire.

Lynne Engelbert guides her dog Piper around the site of a home that burned down during the McKinney fire this year. It devastated the small town of Klamath River near the Oregon-California border.

She’s at Valerie Linfoot’s home, where a specially trained team of dogs and archeologists are working together to find the cremated remains of Linfoot’s mother and grandmother. Their two urns were left behind when Linfoot had to evacuate.

“My husband was home. I wasn't home,” Linfoot says. “So he had about 10 minutes. There was very little that he was able to grab: our pets, our safe, important papers; and he was able to get a few mementos that were near the safe.That was about it.”

Linfoot’s family members’ urns were kept in her walk-in closet, now just a faint outline of where it used to be.

“My best guess would be about a third of the way in, against this wall,” Linfoot says standing just outside the rubble, pointing to where the urns were stored. “But it may have fell forward, so it’s under this piece of metal.”

Ensuring recovery

Engelbert and her team are part of the Alta Heritage Foundation. She says they started in 2017 when a survivor of the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa reached out to an archeologist looking for help finding his parents' cremated remains in the rubble. The archeologist connected them with Engelbert, who does work finding human remains with the Institute for Canine Forensics.

“One weekend I was working with the sheriff's office helping to look for victims with Piper,” Englebert says. “And they were finished with us that day, so I called this guy and I said ‘I can be at your house tomorrow morning’. Piper found the cremains in about two minutes. And I recovered them using a tuna fish can into Ziploc bags.”

Since then, Engelbert says they’ve been out to over 300 homes. She guesses they’re successful in recovering over 80% of remains.

“If the site is not disturbed, we have a high rate of recovery.” she says. “If people go in looking for the urns, they just spread the ashes everywhere. So there’s a lot of scent, but nothing for the dogs or archaeologists to find.”

On the right of the photo two men, one wearing a white tyvex suit, pull piece of metal roofing towards them; they are amidst the rubble of a burnt-down home.
Roman Battaglia
Jefferson Public Radio
Archaeologist Tyler Davis (right) and Valerie Linfoot's husband, Chuck (left), lift a piece of metal roofing off of where they suspect the cremated remains might have fallen in the fire.

Engelbert says if the site has been disturbed, her team will collect what they call a memorial sample, gathering some of the general debris near where the dogs are alerting.

“Because the essence of that person is there, or the dogs wouldn’t alert,” she explains.

Engelbert says it’s important to leave the site alone, protect the area from foot traffic or debris removal and alert recovery officials that human remains are present on the property.

All the work that Engelbert and the others do is on their own dime.

Engelbert says the cost of hotels, gas and all the safety gear they need adds up.

“Tyvek suits, these things, are like $10 each,” Engelbert says, showing the white suit she and the other team members wear when sifting through the hazardous rubble. “We’re only supposed to use them on one site and then we’re supposed to throw them away, but that’s expensive.”

Instead, Engelbert stands inside a trash bag, takes the suit off inside, and puts it back on at the next site, throwing it away at the end of the day.

“If people go in looking for the urns, they just spread the ashes everywhere."

She says they’ve been working for five years trying to find a government agency that can support them.

“We have massive pictures that we roll out on a desktop. And they look at that and they go, ‘Oh, that’s heart-rending. How sad. We’ll see what we can do’. And then that’s the last we hear from them.”

Engelbert says the cost for her team to do their recovery work would be a drop in the bucket for any agency’s budget.

Finding the ashes

The recovery process happens in two steps, combining canine forensics and archeology. Once the handlers take their dogs through the site to locate the general area of the remains, the archeologists step in with shovels and dustpans to sift through the debris looking for the ashes.

“In addition to this salmon color that we see, it’s a lot grittier than some of the other materials we’re seeing like drywall and stuff like that,” says Chelsea Rose, one of the archaeologists on this trip. She rubs a small piece of drywall in her hands and it dissolves into a very fine powder.

A woman wearing a tyvex suit and safety gear stands in the rubble of a burned-down home. Her hand is outstretched towards the camera and in her hand is a small amount of ashes from the debris.
Roman Battaglia
Jefferson Public Radio
Lynne Engelbert examines some ashes. She can tell they're not cremated remains because of the color and texture.

Similar to bomb detection, dogs can be trained to pick on human scents. Search and rescue dogs are used to find both live and deceased people after a disaster.

Dog trainers, including Engelbert, have honed that skill with their companions to find weaker scents associated with older remains, such as cremated remains from decades ago.

At Linfoot’s home, after lifting some metal roofing sheets and imagining where the ashes could have landed in the firestorm, the team gets some good luck. They find the remains didn’t travel far. Right on top of the fiberglass insulation are two, neat piles of salmon-colored ash.

Valerie Linfoot crouches down close to the two small, salmon-colored piles.

“I miss my mom so much,” she says. “I just couldn’t bury her. I wanted her with me. So then I felt really sad because I was the one that had the ashes, I have two brothers and a sister.”

The archeologists are able to identify who’s who based on what’s left of their urns, and the age of the remains. The urns of Linfoot’s mother and grandmother were different, and Rose is able to identify the remains based on what’s left of them.

Rose says they recommend people put their loved one’s remains in porcelain, rather than leaving them in the cardboard or styrofoam box they might have come in. Porcelain isn’t flammable like wood and won’t melt like a metal urn, so the ashes have a greater chance of staying intact during a fire.

Rose and the other archeologist start packing the ashes up into Ziploc bags.

“Oh grandma Vera, I’m so sorry you’ve had to have this huge journey. But, you were an adventurer. And you would really understand and appreciate the efforts of all these people,” Linfoot says.

A woman on the right of the photo squats down just outside the footprint of the burnt-down home. She looks emotional, almost crying. In front of her are two piles of ashes that stand out from the rest of the debris.
Roman Battaglia
Jefferson Public Radio
Valerie Linfoot gets down close to the two small piles of ashes in front of her. The remains settled just a couple feet from where Linfoot stored them in her walk-in closet.

The crew takes a short break before heading right next door to another recovery that day. The dogs are already excited for their next job.

“Back when I was walking up to get the truck I heard one of them whining. That’s normal, right?” asks Kelly Greer, whose husband's remains were recovered earlier that day.

“Yeah, that's drive,” replies Englebert. “Coach, coach, I can do this, put me in!”

Englebert says it can be devastating for families to imagine their loved ones’ remains getting sent to a toxic waste dump with the rest of the rubble.

Whether they’re successful or not, she says, this process helps families get some form of closure knowing they tried.

Roman Battaglia is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. After graduating from Oregon State University, Roman came to JPR as part of the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism in 2019. He then joined Delaware Public Media as a Report For America fellow before returning to the JPR newsroom.