Mill Valley mudslide

This past April, the intensive training of our Bay Area teams was put to the test when a hillside collapsed upon the rear of a Mill Valley home. SDF-trained search teams Jim Boggeri & Recon (Marin County Fire) and SDF handler Teresa Ortenberger and her recovery dog, Rose, were called into action.

Heavy rains had been pounding the Bay Area, leaving many homes vulnerable to floods and mudslides. On April 12th, a call of alarm sounded. The residents of 70 Bolsa Avenue were attempting to clear a drain pipe and requested fire department assistance. Once at the scene, a Mill Valley police officer reported that a mudslide had occurred, and that one occupant was missing. The officer requested assistance from Marin County Urban Search and Rescue (USAR).

At 3:30 a.m., Jim Boggeri was called to assist. Here’s an excerpt from his report:

When we arrived at the scene, we found out that the slide had severed the gas line to the house and all first responders were being held in place until utilities could be secured and gas removed. At 5:00 a.m., after utilities were secured, fire and USAR personnel were directed to the roof of the home and began cutting a large hole in the roof to gain access to rear of structure. The slide had penetrated the left rear, sending a wall of mud and a large oak tree with an 8’ root ball through the master bedroom and bath. The mud was 6-12' deep inside the structure, making our working area very tight and difficult to navigate.

Rescue Teams on the roof
Rescue Teams on the roof

Recon and I began our search at the rear of the house. After fire crews had cut the hole in the roof, we entered the master bedroom through the hole and began searching the bedroom and bath area. The mud was very soft, making our movement very difficult. Recon would sink up to his chest and I would sink past my knees.

The working conditions were very different from what we train in, but the dogs never quit. Their drive was truly incredible. We worked the dogs for three hours throughout the structure. As rescue workers would remove mud and debris, we would bring the dogs back in and re-work the area. The dogs searched in very confined spaces below the house and in void spaces behind the walls. We were evacuated from the structure several times due to recurring mudslides.

At 7:30 a.m., it was decided that the need for cadaver dogs was necessary and a request was made through the California Office of Emergency Services for canine recovery teams. SDF handler Teresa Ortenberger and her cadaver dog Rose arrived with several other teams from the Bay Area. I was asked by the USAR Branch to brief these teams and have two of the teams, Teresa included, conduct an initial search. After leading the teams to the search area, both dogs showed interest in a specific spot next to the large oak tree. For several hours after, as rescue workers removed more mud and debris, we continued to re-work the area covered by the cadaver dogs. The victim was located late afternoon the following day. He was beneath the large oak tree under 8-10' of mud. The spot that interested the cadaver dogs was 4' from the victim.

I felt that Recon performed extremely well. The difficult conditions didn’t slow him down for a minute—his drive was incredible. His understanding of the search in such an adverse environment is amazing. The bond and trust we have developed with our dogs over the last few years helped us overcome this challenging situation and work as a team.

I know this type of incident will occur again. I feel that our ongoing and ever-changing training curriculum has prepared us to deal with whatever comes our way. The drive these dogs possess is so great that no matter what the environment presented, they will work through it to find their toy—and in this way lead us to the victim.

We completed our search by running a quick search scenario with the dogs, hiding each other and allowing the dogs to find us and feel successful and happy. The outcome of this incident was not what we had hoped, as the homeowner had not survived, but as far as our role as canine teams, our dogs exceeded our expectations.