With one word, Decker jumped from boulder to boulder, sniffed around fallen trees and pieces of debris as he climbed over the mud-soaked bank in Montecito.
On Day 4 of rescue efforts, the 7-year-old dog searched for any survivors still trapped in wreckage from the massive debris flows that slammed into the community early Tuesday. He bounded down a creek undeterred by the mud that clung to his coat and swallowed his paws.
“We were searching houses, debris fields and basically anything they couldn’t visually clear, we would clear with the canines,” said Brent Brainard, Decker’s handler and captain with San Diego City Fire-Rescue. “Anything we searched, we were able to clear successfully.”
None of it was simple. They saw homes swept from their foundations from “the sheer force” of the river of mud that came down the mountains, he said. Others had collapsed, just their roofs sticking out of several feet of thick mud.
“It’s something you can’t describe,” Brainard said. “It’s total devastation.”
Intense rain had pounded the fire-scorched mountains above Santa Barbara County and triggered the flood of mud and rocks. Hundreds of homes were destroyed or damaged, 18 people killed, more than two dozen injured and seven still were listed as missing Friday afternoon.
The canine teams worked in areas others couldn’t access as easily or quickly. In all, 18 canine teams trained at the Santa Paula-based National Disaster Search Dog Foundation were on the ground in Montecito this week.
That included Decker and Stella, a 10-year-old lab, both part of the California Task Force 8 San Diego FEMA team. They are trained to track live human scent and find survivors.
Friday’s mission was to clear the creeks and ravines now full of mud, boulders, shattered trees and anything else carried downstream in the storm. At the bottom of a steep slope, Decker strained at his leash until Brainard released him to search.
Like many of the search-and-rescue dogs, Decker was found at a shelter after being dropped off twice by owners unable to care for him. He and Brainard became partners in 2014.
Since, they’ve been to large-scale disasters, including Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, and have worked local deployments, like when a bluff collapsed last year in Del Mar.
Some assignments come with hidden hazards, like a pool camouflaged in mud as Stella and Decker searched a home Thursday. Both fell in.
“You couldn’t even tell it was a pool because there’s a layer of mud over it,” Brainard said.
Their goal is to find someone, he said. So much so, that when there’s no one to find, their handlers get a team member to hide and let the dogs search them out. After finding no one trapped in the creek bed Friday, the dogs quickly found the hiding spot.
They’re amazing, said Scott Fuller, logistics manager on the FEMA team. He stood at the top of the creek bed Friday surrounded by a field of thick, deep mud.
“I went to Katrina, several hurricane deployments, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” Fuller said of the destruction. “The flooding was spectacular in Katrina in New Orleans. But it wasn’t this incredible level of moving water. The stuff that we’ve seen – I’ve never seen anything like it.”