SANTA PAULA, Calif. - Maui County, Hawaii, has identified more than 100 victims of devastating wildfires on the island. The number of people still unaccounted for is still in the hundreds, and ultimately, finding even tiny bits of the missing is a big challenge. A vital part of the search and recovery effort on Maui involves a specially-trained crew, including some trained right here in Southern California.
Forty disaster search dogs assisted in finding the dead in Lahaina, including Maizie and her handler Eric Darling.
Dogs like Maizie can easily climb up and over rubble, or even find the smallest piece of human remains. Their primary tool? Their nose. They learn all those skills at the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation. While Maizie didn't hone her skills at the Ventura County facility, her and Darling go there every week to help keep their instincts sharp.
Now home from Hawaii, Darling reflects on his weeks of searching for missing loved ones.
"We were looking for small pieces, very important pieces, very dignified pieces of those folks," he said.
Darling added that while at the training facility, heaps of praise help teach the dogs their skills, in the field, there's respect and decorum for the dead.
"Our tone of ‘Hey,' ‘Good girl,’ 'Nice job let’s get back to work,' — just our tone, and our appreciation and our gratitude toward them, why we're working, [that] is what they need," Darling said.
The heat in Maui meant crews had to be diligent about making sure the dogs didn't overheat. To protect the animals from the toxins in the ash and debris, they required special clothing for their paws. Darling said that while he did use booties with Maizie on Maui, "I found that utilizing the motorcycle tubing that the conservation group of Hawaii uses to walk on the lava rocks was the best for my partner."
Back at home in Santa Paula, more dogs continue to train to eventually make it to the field, and even learn to put on protective gear, because, as Darling said, "a sick rescuer is not a rescuer."