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Archaeologists search Almeda fire zones for memories

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“I just couldn’t leave her here like that,” said Sandra Dee Robinson, sobbing with relief as Joann Mellon handed her a large Ziploc bag filled with what was identified as her mother’s cremated remains.

The two fell into a tight embrace as Robinson exuded her gratitude for returning her loved one to her.

Friday morning, Mellon led one of four teams of archaeologists, dogs and dog handlers who sifted through the Almeda fire ashes in Phoenix in search of cremated human remains.

Just after 9:30 a.m., the team began its hunt based on Robinson’s clues — the full set of her mother’s remains once rested in a plastic container from a mortuary inside a cardboard box, somewhere inside the back bedroom of her manufactured home at 3555 S. Pacific Highway, spot No. 15.

Search dog Asha and her partner, Barbara Pence, were first to search for indicators of where the remains might be. Asha is trained to detect and uncover historical and prehistoric remains, and has traveled across the U.S. to deploy her skills.

Strong winds and the unpredictable nature of fire destruction challenged her search. Dogs Jasper and Cagney joined to help during the nearly three-hour project, leaping over broken glass, rusted nails and sharp edges with their snouts to the ground. All three signaled in roughly the same area.

Robinson caught sharp breaths in expectation outside the area marked off with caution tape, as each dog lingered over a spot of debris. Volunteers handed over treasures uncovered in their search.

“I keep asking my mom to help me,” Robinson said, as she endeavored to provide helpful information to the search team, but couldn’t remember exactly where in the bedroom her mother’s ashes sat, let alone reconstruct a schematic using only twisted metal frames as guidelines.

Donned in Tyvek suits and N-95 masks, each trained archaeologist searched layer by layer for a consolidated set of ash — differentiated by color or texture — amid thousands of pounds of fire debris surrounding them.

Meanwhile, Robinson began an excavation of her own. Angel ceramics, keys, buttons, mortar and pestle, glass, bits of her rock collection and one fully intact and unopened bottle of wine survived the fire, along with a Snoopy icon as old as Robinson herself.

Prior to the fire, she intended to have her mother’s ashes interred in blown glass and divided between herself and her brother. She moved to the area just over two years ago, and some boxes hadn’t yet been unpacked.

“I only brought the core of what really meant a lot to me in my car. I packed it full, and my mom was included,” Robinson said. “My mom was the most important thing by far and away.”

She wasn’t able to return home from work to grab anything when she heard about fire evacuations and the roads being plugged up.

Along with thousands of others who lost homes, businesses and loved ones the day the Almeda fire ripped through the Rogue Valley, Robinson has her own haunting account. She remembers the relentless wind, intense heat and smoke closing in. She remembers the sound of exploding ammunition and propane tanks.

That morning, for the first time, her car wouldn’t idle. Before the fire, Robinson and her boyfriend sent text messages back and forth about the odd feeling they felt in the air.

“I almost felt like somebody was trying to tell me something,” she said.

For this project, archaeologists from the Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology joined up with the Alta Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit focused on leveraging archaeological experience for humanitarian efforts. Some members of the group worked Thursday in Happy Camp, California, to recover remains left in the wake of the Slater fire.

Those who are interested in using the recovery services can contact them through its website www.CremainsRecovery.com.

Before the teams deployed to meet their clients in the field, lead organizer Alex DeGeorgey reminded each participant that the story is just as important as the field work — the identities that belonged to cremated people and what they meant to surviving family members.

He used his own trial-and-error field experience to help the group avoid contamination from ash footprints via personal protective equipment, and how to better engage with clients who may be struggling with mental health in such an emotional situation.

Some Alta volunteers have family members who lost homes in California’s Camp fire, such as Eric Ritter, an archaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management who helped find cremains in the Medford Estates Mobile Home Park. He has been a practicing archaeologist since 1962.

This project is vastly different from his typical work, though his current focus professionally is on fire destruction of heritage resources in Northern California.

Ritter trained Mellon in archaeology — each team member has a sharp eye for artifacts and features of each site. Recovery techniques such as use of a trowel, dustpan and spatial markers help guide the search.

“Just like when you’re doing an excavation of a prehistoric site, an Indian site or historic miner’s cabin, you’re carefully looking for this variation that you’re seeing in the deposit,” Ritter explained. “You do the best you can.”

Just after noon, as Mellon handed over the bag of remains, she was honest with Robinson — it’s not all of her mother, and the ashes are likely mixed with some other materials, but based on the dogs’ signals and other indicators, they found at least some of what was there to uncover.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497 and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.

Archaeologists take away layer by layer of ash and soil, looking for a pocket of cremated remains with different texture and color characteristics. (Allayana Darrow photo)
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune - Joyce Crockett tells volunteers where she remembered having memorabilia in her burned down storage unit from the Almeda fire in Phoenix Friday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune - Volunteer archaeologist’s sort through a burned down storage unit in Phoenix Friday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune - Volunteer archaeologist’s sort through a burned down storage unit in Phoenix Friday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune - Karen Atkinson uses her trained dog Amiga to sniff through a burned down storage unit from the Almeda fire in Phoenix Friday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune - Karen Atkinson uses her trained dog Echo to sniff through a burned down storage unit from the Almeda fire in Phoenix Friday morning.