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'I Had Lost Her Again': Search Dogs Help Recover Cremains In Fire Zone

SONOMA COUNTY (CBS13) - This summer's fire victims who are desperate to find one specific item in all the rubble are reaching out to archaeologists for help.

Among the mounds of rubble and ash, many lose something that can never be replaced.  That's where Canine search specialist Lynne Engelbert and her dogs come in.

"I mean we, literally, have had people who are falling down on the ground sobbing," Engelbert, told CBS13.

They're not sniffing out jewelry or precious heirlooms, but something much more personal and emotional.

"You can't put into words how awful it is to experience that," said Carmel Buckhout.

Buckhout watched her home turn to ashes when the Camp Fire swept through Butte County in 2018.   While Buckhout had to grapple with losing everything, the most devastating loss was the urn that held her Mom's ashes.

"It was awful. I felt like I had lost her again and I had nothing to connect me to her anymore," said Buckhout.  She'd lost hope until a friend told her about archaeologists working with dogs to find cremains in leftover wildfire ash.

"We're looking for a bundle of ash the size of your fist in the mass of all this ash and it just seems impossible," said archaeologist Alex DeGeorgey.  DeGeorgey is president of the Alta Heritage Foundation, working with local organizations and canine search specialists to help wildfire victims find their loved ones after losing them a second time.  DeGeorgey admits that the search for cremains after a fire is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

That's why he's thankful for dogs like Piper.  Piper sifts through the ash with Engelbert.  Once a dog gets a scent, they're able to point archaeologists in the right direction.  When archaeologists have a general area to search, they're able to sift through the ashes and actually separate out which ones belong to loved ones.

"It tends to have kind of a salmon color or a pink hue to it that looks slightly different from the ash of the rest of the building," said DeGeorgey. "I've had the pleasure of working with these dogs probably more than any other archaeologist in the state and I started out as a skeptic and I'm definitely a believer."

It's a rare recovery reconnecting fire victims with their loved ones who they've now lost twice.

"We do this for the love of helping people and we walk away from it with our hearts singing at what we're able to help them do," said Engelbert.

It was Engelbert's pooch, Piper, that helped Buckhout get her mother back by her side.

"She's next to my bed again.  She hasn't left my side, so it was just nice to know I have her back with me," said Buckhout.

The Alta Heritage Foundation has excavated 300 homes over the last four years, returning hundreds of cremains to their loved ones. They do the work for free which makes donations critical.  If you'd like to help, you can donate online.

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