On March 1, 30,000 Santa Barbara residents came under mandatory evacuation orders as a winter storm approached the area. The rain came lightly and went, and there was virtually no damage to report, but the trauma over the earlier Montecito mudslide was just as strong as ever. In Ventura County, rescue dogs and their handlers of the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation were ready for whatever the storm might bring. In fact, the foundation’s head trainer, Sonja Heritage, had been at the heart of the Thomas Fire on Dec. 4, leading the safe evacuation of dogs and trainers from the Santa Paula campus, and then called a month later from a routine FEMA training session in Oklahoma City to duty in Montecito to search for both the living and deceased.
After a much-needed vacation to recoup after a hectic two months, Heritage is back at the Santa Paula campus as well as working with rescue-dog teams around the country. This week, she took time out to talk to the VCReporter about her 20-plus-year journey working with rescue dogs and the personal experience of working during the fire and the mudslide.
How did you get involved with the Search Dog Foundation?
In 2012, our then-executive director called and asked if I’d be interested in coming out and touring the National Training Center (NTC) campus, which was mostly untouched at the time. When I arrived and met with everyone here at Search Dog Foundation, they explained their vision for the property, how we could put more dogs into the system to respond after disasters, and how we would be elevating the advanced training of search teams across the country through workshops and deployment simulations at the NTC. I was sold and have never looked back
When did you get involved in rescue missions?
When I saw the dogs working in Oklahoma City, I knew that’s what I wanted to do and began to pursue it right away. In 1996 I found a working-line German shepherd puppy and joined Search and Rescue Dogs of Maryland (SARDOM). I was extremely lucky to have Garrett Dyer, who was a trainer on Virginia Task Force 1 (VA-TF1) as my mentor. He had a great perspective and was extremely knowledgeable in working-dog training and handling and introduced dogs “working in drive” into the FEMA program. VA-TF1 is also sponsored by the State Department (Office of U.S. Foreign Disasters Assistance) as one of two international teams in the USA. In 1997 I was recruited by VA-TF1, and Otto and I were FEMA certified in November of that year. That’s how it all came together for me.
Are you native to Ventura County?
I am not — I am actually from the East Coast but moved to San Diego when I was 19, where I met my husband Jim. We lived there for 11 years then moved back to Maryland for a while and became involved with dogs and pursued my FEMA handler, trainer, instructor career. In 2012 SDF offered me the head trainer position and we were thrilled to return to the West Coast as it’s always felt like our compass was set here. It’s home for both of us. We live on the center’s campus and have watched it grow into what it is today, and it’s been quite a process. We live, breathe and dream about search dogs, handlers and keeping this program up-to-date on the latest cutting-edge training methods. For me, it’s all about the dogs. Starting with the right candidate is critical because this job requires super powers.
Tell us about the dogs you have trained and some of the special missions they have been on.
All of the SDF dogs (and handlers) that I have worked with and have graduated and gone on to deploy are amazing! These dogs have shown the drive, focus, athleticism and fortitude to assure that if anyone is trapped alive in the rubble or debris, they will be found! This is the most important thing to me — that our dogs work at the highest level at any type of disaster. Our dogs don’t quit. They have deployed to earthquakes in Mexico City, Nepal, Japan and Haiti. Hurricanes Maria, Irma, Harvey, Mathew, Sandy. We have teams in Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri that deploy to tornados that wreak havoc annually in their regions, and they are able to get on scene very quickly and save lives. In California our teams respond to building collapses, missing persons, vehicle crashes, plane crashes, bluff collapses, floods and mudslides. Every one of these missions requires a search dog and handler that are well-trained and ready to respond because lives are at stake and time is critical. That’s what we do and are so proud of!
How about your dogs in particular and missions you have been on?
I have trained and been partners with four FEMA canines: Otto, Drako, Czaro and now Asta, my current partner. Throughout my career I’ve deployed to the U.S. Embassy bombing in Nairobi, Kenya (my first), the Pentagon after 9/11, the earthquakes in Turkey, Taiwan, Iran and Haiti, as well as Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike. We also worked on recovery efforts after the space shuttle Columbia disaster and, recently, the Montecito mudslides. I have been very lucky, Otto opened so many doors for me; he was a large powerful dog and I was 120 lbs. We were memorable and deployed all over the world and to 9/11. I loved that boy so much and he made me so proud.
Drako was a searching machine! He would work for anyone and certified with several handlers on VA-TF1. He was also District of Columbia’s first FEMA dog; paired with firefighter Chris Holmes, they responded to building collapses, lost persons and so many other calls! Drako and I also introduced hundreds of UKSAR (United Kingdom Search and Rescue) to the canine search program, and how valuable these dogs are on a mission. Every rescuer wanted a dog after Drako found every victim every time they set up the toughest search scenario they could think of. He was amazing.
Czaro was my dog of a lifetime. He was a big, strong, masculine bi-color German shepherd. When I screened him — my first words were: “He’s the strongest dog that I have ever laid hands on.” His intensity, focus and athleticism blew me away. He was a dog that quietly owned the ground that he stood on, and other dogs respected that quiet authority. He was a true pack leader. He searched and alerted powerfully, and victims could feel his approach well before he arrived. Czaro and I worked in sync and it’s always been a partnership of mutual admiration, respect and great moments of humor. He was (is) my “heart” dog. If you saw him work, you remembered him. I still really miss him.
Asta is my first female working dog. I wasn’t sure if she would measure up to the boys at first but man oh man, she is so much smarter, faster and more serious than I expected! She is small, super-drivey and puts it all out there. Her agility is flawless and she keeps going and going. She is 10 years old and still going strong! I love that little girl! This is likely her last year so we are enjoying every minute of our time working together, and she will enjoy her retirement and be spoiled rotten.
I’ve just begun looking for my next partner; we will see what the universe brings! There’s no way I can give this up. It’s what I do and who I am.
Is dog man’s best friend?
Absolutely! Dogs are a reflection of the people around them. They are honest, fun-loving and always strive to achieve balance in their pack. In addition, they love working with us, and their noses house 215 million more olfactory receptors than ours. That means that they can be trained to identify cancer cells, bombs, drugs, insects, gas leaks, people and anything else that we need by simply attaching a reward to that odor. They assist the handicapped, comfort patients and the elderly as well as those needing emotional support. As if that weren’t enough, they are always happy to see you come home! And they’re warm and fuzzy!
To shift gears a bit, Search Dog Foundation was impacted by the Thomas Fire and the foundation played a significant role in Montecito. Where were you when you found out about the Thomas Fire?
We were at home on the NTC campus along with our trainers, canine care specialists, staff and visiting handlers from Sacramento.
What was your response to the news?
Well, we didn’t really see it on the news — we saw the glow over the ridgeline and knew it was close. As soon as we knew there was a fire nearby, we began moving the dogs into vehicles and preparing to evacuate.
What was the foundation able to do in response to the fire?
We have everything ready in case of an emergency evacuation so it was really a matter of executing the plan and, to be honest, it went very well and the team was very efficient in getting the dogs loaded up and off campus. We had the added assistance of three Sacramento handlers who were staying in our Handlers’ Lodge on campus and they were able to load up their dogs and help get all our canine candidates-in-training loaded as well. We were fully evacuated from campus within about 30 minutes and well ahead of the fire danger, just as we’ve planned for an emergency like this.
What do you think of what happened to the foundation’s property?
Well, of course, it’s devastating to see something that we’ve worked on for years — from the planning and design process to the actual construction and then the theming, where we created a disasterlike scenario through various props and elements — but at the same time, we’re so lucky that we only lost parts of our facility when so many others lost everything.
How is rebuilding coming along?
Right now, we are awaiting approval on proper debris removal and cleanup of the affected area, and when that is completed and our building permits approved, we will begin restoration of these invaluable training areas. In the meantime, our training team continues to use other areas of our campus, to train with our search dog candidates and visiting veteran search teams alike.
When did you leave for FEMA training after the fire?
I actually left for Oklahoma City to train with our new teams there on Monday, Jan. 8, which was the day before the Montecito mudslide. My plan was to stay for several days, training with those teams as SDF provides training support for all our teams throughout their careers.
What were you doing when you heard about the Montecito mudslide?
I was training with our Oklahoma teams when my phone began ringing and I was informed of the mudslide and our team’s deployment. Of course, being in Oklahoma, I couldn’t respond right away. I decided to finish training with our OKC teams that day and then fly home to deploy to Montecito. The next day, I jumped on a plane, arrived home, grabbed my gear and search dog Asta, and was in Montecito just a few hours after landing back in California.
Tell us about the mission in Montecito.
There were 18 SDF-trained FEMA search teams in Montecito along with canine teams from Orange County, Riverside and a number of other regional and local canines that responded to that incident. It was a challenging deployment in that it was spread over a wide area and the mud was very deep with god knows what was underneath it. It was really thick too, which made walking very difficult near or around the homes. There were hazards such as swimming pools and Jacuzzis, which became big mud pits that you or your dog could quickly disappear into, so you really needed to be vigilant to stay safe. Unfortunately, due to the mud and cold, there were only recoveries after I arrived. However, finding deceased loved ones is very important work and so critical for the families waiting for them.
What was the most memorable/intense situation with the mudslide?
One of the local first responders came over and was talking about his personal relationships with so many of the missing and how things had unfolded for him. He had been there since it happened, was confirming victims, and he was also dealing with the families. He had personally been through a lot, but he was still in first-responder mode. I still think about how he’s holding up. As a first responder, I’ve always responded to other countries, towns or neighborhoods. The thought of having to respond to an area where my family, friends and the people I see every day live, wow, that’s another level entirely. Montecito should be very, very proud of these men and women.
How were you able to handle such extremes in these situations?
This is what we do. As a disaster first responder you are conditioned to expect horrific challenges and function as safely as possible in whatever you encounter. It’s the nature of the business, and we thrive in those situations. It is much harder to deal with not being able to respond and that frustration.
How did the dogs and your dog in particular do with their missions/rescues?
The dog teams did amazing work, covering the entire area systematically. They seemed to really enjoy working in the cool mud, and the cool temperatures definitely allowed them to work effectively for longer periods. They worked diligently to find someone alive in the debris but, unfortunately, had no live finds. Periodically we would hide someone [a volunteer] in a strainer (pile of trees, cars, etc.) to assure they were working at a high level. All the dogs hit the scent cone from far away, were very excited and alerted loudly with their handler at a good distance away from them. The “victim” rewarded them with a fire hose toy and a good game of tug and they went crazy! It was so exciting to see our dog teams all working so effectively in the field. Knowing all the canine resources personally put my mind at ease.
Asta worked beautifully, searching in the deep mud, debris and remaining structures. She never got tired or sore, but I sure did. These dogs are so, so happy to work — it makes you very proud to be a part of it!