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Recovering remains

Crook County Search and Rescue volunteers were recently called upon to help with the sobering task of locating the bodies of those who succumbed to the Oso, Wash. landslide


by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Lori Blackburn and her K-9 Annie,  take part in the recovery process at the Oso, Washington mud slide site.

Lori Blackburn first met her German Shepard, Annie, who was one-and-a-half years old at the time, when the dog's current family decided they couldn’t keep her anymore.

“She would get in trouble chasing deer and needed a new home,” said Blackburn, “I knew that I needed to have her.”

Annie will be 5 this June, and is not your typical pet, having been trained for Human Remains Detection, or HRD as it is known in search and rescue circles.

Annie and Blackburn, members of the Crook County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue team (CCSSAR), get the call when it's time to find people who are assumed to be deceased.

Recently, that call came from Oso, Wash., the site of the massive mud slide that, as of April 16, has resulted in 39 dead and seven others missing.

“By the time these dogs are at a site like Oso, it is a recovery not a search,” said Blackburn. “When I bring Annie out it is always a recovery. It's very sobering, and kind of stills you inside. We are searching for a person that we know is deceased and there is a family that wants to bring them home.”

On March 22, the rain-drenched hills of Oso, above the Stillaguamish River, gave way, burying three dozen homes and covering over one square mile of land under mud, rocks and trees. A Washington state geologist described the slide area as 1,500 feet long by 4,400 feet wide with accumulated debris up to 40 feet deep.

Snohomish County, 375 miles from Prineville, may seem like a long way away, but to the dedicated members of CCSSAR, distance doesn’t matter. It’s a call for help that is always answered.

Crook County Emergency Manager Michael Ryan explained that if the situation were reversed and a disaster of the proportion of the mud slide had happened in Crook County, the county commission would have declared a state of emergency.

“We would send the declaration to the governor to sign off on, at which point we would look to the federal government to provide a Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) declaration,” said Ryan.

Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee sent such a declaration on April 1, estimating initial losses to be in the range of $10 million and, by April 3, President Obama had signed the disaster declaration.

With that, the wheels were set in motion that allowed local emergency personnel to enlist help from outside their area. The request arrived at the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, where it was passed on to all of the counties in the state.

“We, of course, agreed to help and, in conjunction with a dog team from Deschutes County, were able to send three teams to Oso,” said Ryan, adding that the teams arrived on scene April 4 and returned home on Monday, April 7.

Getting involved with search and rescue began for Blackburn when she moved to Prineville three years ago, working as a forest program manager and silviculturist, managing timber sales, prescribed burns and tree stand treatment, for the Ochoco and Deschutes National Forest.

“I knew that I wanted Annie for search and rescue training,” said Blackburn, who connected with K9 trainer Ken Schilling, working Annie as a tracking dog.

Tracking dogs often conjure up images of Bloodhounds, straining on the leash held by their handler, as they follow a particular human scent, either on the ground or in the air.

When Blackburn felt Annie was ready to go to work, she contacted CCSSAR, enrolled in the academy and was finally voted in as a team member.

It soon became apparent, however, that tracking was not for Annie, whose personality didn’t seem to fit the regimen required for that type of work.

“I found that she had an affinity for HRD, wanting more of a free rein” said Blackburn, adding that the team began training for that type of work in October 2012, earning their certification in July of the following year.

Affinity meant that Annie had the drive to hunt.

“She is a predator,” explained Blackburn. “This type of work is about finding a scent, searching out its source and getting a reward. The dog wants to work for you and please you.”

But, the work is hard, and takes its toll on both the dog and its handler and the mud slide in Washington was a difficult scene for Blackburn, who traveled to Oso with fellow recovery team member Jillian McIntosh and her dog Kivu.

“Dogs can only run for so long in that kind of situation,” explained Ryan, “And can only work in four-hour shifts.”

“It is really hard on the dog and their nose,” agreed Blackburn, saying that each team worked half-day shifts, rotating in and out of the mud slide every 20 to 40 minutes.

Annie knows it is time to go to work when Blackburn gets out her gear and equipment, much like a domestic pet knows it is time to go for a walk when its owner pulls out its leash.

But, this is far from a walk in the park and this site was far different than anything Annie and Blackburn had encountered before.

“This was the most difficult for Annie and me, in terms of lives lost and the difficulty of the terrain,” said Blackburn. “Most of what we have been involved with is a single lost person.”

And, the work is slow and deliberate.

Blackburn would guide Annie to the edge of a search lane, whose surface had been carefully scraped by an excavator, and, on command, the dog would start exploring, nose to the ground.

“She will start doing her hunt for the hidden object, which in this case is a scent,” said Blackburn, explaining that Annie would sit when alerting to the scent.

Veterinarians were on site in support of the teams, checking the dogs for proper hydration and potential injuries, especially to dogs' paws.

“It is all about the dogs,” said Blackburn. “If the dogs can't work, you are blind out there.”

While working, Blackburn was constantly aware of families standing at the edge of the slide, hoping against hope of finding their loved ones.

“You want to find them and bring them home,” said Blackburn soberly, “They have lost people they love, it hurts inside if you let it get to you.”

Blackburn recalled one woman who came up to her and said that she was one of the lucky ones because her sister had been found.

“At least she had her sister's body to bury. She had her back,” said Blackburn, still showing signs of emotion from the experience. “Some of her neighbors didn’t have loved ones back yet. And yet, they were so thankful for us being out there looking.”

As emotional as it was for Blackburn to experience, she had work to do.

“You can't go out and be a mess, because the dog will react to that,” she said. “You need to be careful and work your dog and not get lost in the moment. You have to separate yourself from the tragedy. ”

Annie's time to work ended two days after it began, when she injured her upper leg.

“Three to four days would have been the absolute maximum for her,” said Blackburn, “But, even though she was walking OK when we came off the slide, she ended up in a lot of pain. It was time to come home.”

How do search teams decompress from such a stressful weekend?

Blackburn's mother had passed away in March, so she knew something about dealing with grief.

“There is already a group I can go to for dealing with grief concerning my mom,” said Blackburn. “So I have that service to check in with if I need to.”

Blackburn said she also allows herself quiet time, when required, letting herself become sad if need be.

“The dogs also know what they have been through. Their whole world has been rocked,” she said. “They need to get back to their routine, play ball and sleep in a familiar place.”

Blackburn said she can separate herself from the tragedy because it didn’t happen to her, and is able to walk away and go back home. That doesn’t mean she won't grieve for the people who have lost a family member.

“It was such an honor to be able to work on behalf of those families,” said Blackburn. “These people have lost so much and I am just here to work my dog. I can go home and be whole. It is such a small thing to give.”



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