When Rogue Valley residents Mike Evans and Eric Ronemus heard about the devastating affects of the mudslide in Oso, Wash., they knew sooner or later they too would be wading through "the pile" with their search-and-rescue dogs.
"The locals, they refer to it as 'the pile,' " said Evans, speaking of the square-mile debris field left behind by the March 22 slide, where he and his 6-year-old golden retriever, Lily, spent three days searching for human remains.
Evans with Lily, and Ronemus with 2-year-old yellow Labrador retriever Abby, were dispatched to help with the recovery efforts on March 31 as part of California-Oregon Regional Search and Rescue, according to Jackson County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Andrea Carlson. The pair of search-and-rescue dog teams also are part of Jackson County Search and Rescue.
Evans and Ronemus said they'd been expecting a request to assist in the mudslide recovery effort and weren't surprised when they were called to replace worn-out search teams.
"The place where I was working the first day was about 30-feet-deep mud," said Evans, 67, of Eagle Point. "It was a toxic soup mixture of garbage, sewage, household chemicals."
Dogs received decontamination baths following each four-hour search day.
The mud was too soupy for Evans to walk on, but Lily would hop back and forth on piles of debris trying to pick up the scent of humans, Evans said.
When a dog picked up human scent, it would lie down and the area would be marked with GPS before another dog was brought in to confirm or dispute the possibility of a victim's location. If two dogs confirmed a location, heavy equipment was moved in to rake through the mud and debris.
The mudslide was divided into two search areas, Evans and Ronemus said. One area, where Evans and Lily worked the first day, was thick and soupy. The other area was better drained and allowed excavators to move somewhat freely.
In the drier search area, excavators would rake through the debris prior to search-and-rescue dogs searching the area.
In addition to Evans and Ronemus, about 14 other dog teams worked the debris field, they said. Eight teams worked in the mornings and eight teams worked in the afternoons.
"It was pretty much heavy equipment and dogs ... those were the search teams," Evans said. "It's the biggest concentration of search dogs I have ever worked around."
Out of respect for the victims of the mudslide and their families, Evans and Ronemus declined to say whether their dogs found any human remains.
When remains were found, a whistle would sound across the search area, Ronemus recalled.
"Everyone would stop working and remove their hats. It was an act of respect," he said.
An honor guard would remove the remains from the site before another whistle sounded, alerting everyone it was time to begin searching again.
"Whenever that happened, chills went up my back," Ronemus said.
Three whistles, "you didn't want to hear that," meant the hillside was giving way and workers should immediately evacuate the site, said Ronemus, 59, of Central Point.
Fortunately, three whistles never sounded, but the 600-foot, partially collapsed bluff is being closely monitored as the search effort continues.
The main search-and-rescue camp, stationed in nearby Darrington, reminded the men of a wildfire camp, they said. They slept in tents, ate meals cooked on site and took showers there.
After three days of searching, Evans, Lily, Ronemus and Abby, who cut her paw while searching, were rotated out, and fresh teams were brought in. They returned to Jackson County on Friday.
The dogs tend to get bored after about three days of searching and become less productive, Ronemus said.
"They are just dogs, you can't make it not fun for them," Ronemus said.
According to The Associated Press on Wednesday, 10 people were still missing in the mudslide and 36 have been confirmed dead.
"I don't think you can help but be affected by the sense of sorrow and sadness," Evans said. "But at the same time, I was inspired by the effort. ... You really see how the local people are pitching in for their families and neighbors."
"I was proud to have had such a miniscule part in the whole picture," Ronemus said. "I admire the people who were there first."