Search dogs aid in Oso recovery operation

B.G. woman, pit bull part of Evergreen Search Dogs team enlisted to help

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

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Evergreen Search Dogs is a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization based in Clark County that aids search-and-rescue operations.

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Relic, a 3-year-old pit bull terrier, waded through thick mud that, in spots, came up to her chest. She climbed debris piles — some two stories high — in search of human remains left in the wake of the March 22 landslide in the small community of Oso.

She spent two days this week in the disaster zone scouring the rubble for victims with her handler and owner, Battle Ground resident Victoria Armstrong.

"As soon as I heard about it, I wanted to go," said Armstrong, who's part of Evergreen Search Dogs. The local all-volunteer organization that's overseen by the Clark County Sheriff's Office and the local 911 dispatch center has had three canine teams sent to Oso so far, she said.

When the pair arrived at the edge of the disaster zone Tuesday morning, Armstrong gaped at the crumbled landscape. From her vantage point, she couldn't see all of it, but she could compare the wreckage to the intact mountainside she was parked next to. It seemed impossible, she thought, for the land to suddenly come crashing down and move so far.

"It's indescribable," Armstrong said. Pictures and video don't come close, she said, to standing among it.

Armstrong was part of the canine group assigned to a section within the square mile of muck and debris. She carried several containers of water for Relic and a couple of water bottles for herself. Water is the heaviest piece of equipment used during searches, and the most vital, Armstrong said. Search dogs run the entire time, climbing piles and going wherever their snouts may take them.

The work is tiring, and the dogs typically search for 20 minutes at a time.

Although Relic usually wears a harness that identifies her as a search-and-rescue dog, in a disaster zone she goes without it to prevent the harness from potentially getting caught on something.

"There are areas where the mud is like quicksand, and if you step into it, you're sunk," Armstrong said. She duct-taped her boots to her gaiters to help prevent them from being pulled off in the mud during the four-hour shifts.

After each search, Armstrong and Relic had to be decontaminated and scrubbed down at hot water stations. All the chemicals and materials found in houses and cars merged with the hillside during the slide, creating a hazardous environment.

During breaks, members of the National Guard would stop and sit with Relic, petting her and accepting her eager kisses.

"Sitting there and petting our search dogs was like therapy for them," Armstrong said, adding that the attention also kept up Relic's morale. "The stress of the handler goes straight down the leash."

To Relic, she said, the search is a game. But, to the people in Snohomish County, it's a way to gain closure.

Finding a body doesn't make what happened better, but it gives a grieving community answers about their missing loved ones.

Armstrong knows this all too well. Before she was born, her sister, Robin, was murdered when she was 12, and people went out looking for her.

Search-and-rescue professionals helped out the family, and her sister's body was eventually found.

"Not knowing is worse," Armstrong said.

The Oso landslide is a fluid situation, and searchers' assignments change with it. Armstrong was impressed by how well-organized, meticulous and respectful the search was.

On Friday, the Washington State Department of Agriculture announced that it was sending veterinarians to treat rescue dogs with minor cuts, hyperthermia and damaged pads.

Training for the worst

The Oso mudslide was Relic's third official search. She started training for disaster scenarios at 5 months old.

Relic's training each weekend revolves around building agility and following commands. Armstrong said the goal is to train search-and-rescue dogs at the highest level of stress, so that they'll perform well in an actual situation that may not be as stressful.

Relic, trained in "human remains detection," sniffs out scents and lays down when she finds something. Armstrong said she's not allowed to discuss what, if anything, Relic found at Oso.

She typically trains alongside Armstrong's other dog, 9-year-old Dutch shepherd named Wahoo, who's trained to find missing hikers. He's the oldest canine on the Evergreen team.

At the Oso disaster zone, Armstrong recognized most of the handlers and their dogs from regional training seminars, and the annual Washington State Search and Rescue Conference. Although the situation was dire, the reunion had a silver lining.

"It's comforting. We know they know how to do their job," Armstrong said. "It does your heart good to see what great people are out there."

Evergreen Search Dogs awaits any additional deployments as rescue dogs are rotated through the area, and other local search groups are on hold, such as Silver Star Search and Rescue and the Clark County Sheriff's Office Civilian Search and Rescue.