Tracy and Garrett Wilson were on vacation in Utah with their 10-year-old son when the Marshall Fire began to burn west of their Louisville home on the morning of Dec. 30. Soon after, the couple’s regular neighborhood group text — which had begun pinging with notices of evacuation orders and creeping smoke — took on a tone of unsettling urgency. 

“It got so bad, so fast,” Tracy said. “We talked to our neighbors and our dog sitter. They tried to come and get in, but it was too late at that point.”

A week later, the Wilsons stood outside the husk of their razed home on Eldorado Lane, a charred shell of their Subaru Forester still parked in the driveway, as a bloodhound sniffed the perimeter of the burned area for the remains of their two dogs, Fudge and Riley. 

“They didn’t deserve this,” Garrett said as he looked on, his voice warbling with grief. 

The trained search and rescue (SAR) dog named Amber prowled through the detritus of what was once the Wilsons’ home, her handler Alan Duffy close behind. She stopped and began to whine near what would have been one of Fudge’s and Riley’s favorite places to sleep.

“Listen to her,” Duffy said. “She’s telling you they’re here.”

This scene has been a familiar one for volunteers with Justice Takes Flight, a local nonprofit specializing in dog-led searches for missing people. Responding to the Marshall Fire, SAR dog handler Duffy and organization founder Britney Workman recalibrated their mission and began helping fire victims locate the remains of missing pets.

The search begins with a scent item — for the Wilsons, it was the leashes that tethered Fudge and Riley on their regular morning and evening walks — which the bloodhound uses for tracking purposes. Then she gets to work, snooping around the search area until she finds a match for the scent. 

When the dog finds it, she signals by pacing, whining and pawing at the matching scent in the debris. This tells pet owners where their beloved animals spent their final moments, and confirms they’re not somewhere on the loose, answering one in a series of painful questions lingering after a disaster like the Marshall Fire.

But Amber serves another important function, too. “I think having her here is important, because they can see the dog and interact with her,” Workman said. “I think that’s a step to the grief process.”

As of writing, Justice Takes Flight has helped 20 families navigate that grief process since the fire burned its path of historic destruction through southern Boulder County nearly two weeks ago, destroying more than 1,000 homes — some with pets inside. 

The Boulder Reporting Lab joined Workman, Duffy and Amber on Jan. 7 at two destroyed homes in Louisville and Superior, as the search team performed their work of helping Boulder County residents find something resembling closure in the wake of monumental loss.

“They’re not just pets,” Duffy told distraught Superior residents Fabiana Jorge and Robert Parish, whose dog and cat were killed in the blaze at Jorge’s home on Blackfoot Street. “They’re a part of you.”

Assisting the Wilson family, whose home was destroyed in the Marshall Fire, a trained search and rescue bloodhound named Amber stands ready in the family’s Louisville neighborhood before beginning a search for their missing dogs, Riley and Fudge. Credit: Anthony Albidrez
Standing in a Superior neighborhood that was lost to the Marshall Fire, Britney Workman, owner and founder of Justice Takes Flight, smiles for a photo. At no cost, the nonprofit missing persons network organization has devoted their services to people affected by the Marshall Fire by confirming whether their pets made it out or not. Workman says this experience helps to give families closure. Credit: Anthony Albidrez
Alan Duffy, a seasoned search and rescue (SAR) dog handler, discusses the complexities associated with SAR dogs in a decimated Superior neighborhood. Duffy explained that Amber smells “scent items,” such as toys and blankets that belong to the missing pet, to match any existing scents within the debris. Using this method, the team can determine if there are any remains within the home’s perimeter by the signals Amber expresses, such as whining, pacing and pawing. They can also determine if pet remains are not present at the search site, which may indicate the pet was able to escape. Credit: Anthony Albidrez
Amber and Duffy begin their search based on a scent item for Riley and Fudge. Credit: Anthony Albidrez
Duffy and Amber continue their search for Riley and Fudge in Louisville. Many families affected by the Marshall Fire have missing pets that may or may not have survived the incident. Justice Takes Flight has been on the ground in the burn area, answering that question for families. Credit: Anthony Albidrez
As Amber whined in an area of the debris, Workman (left) explains the signal’s meaning to Tracy and Garrett Wilson (right). Amber’s signals indicated that Fudge and Riley did not survive the fire. Credit: Anthony Albidrez
After confirming that Fudge and Riley did not survive the fire, Tracy Wilson hugs Workman, thanking her for helping her family. “Watching [Amber] work and pinpoint where their pet last was gives them a sense of closure,” Workman said. Credit: Anthony Albidrez
The remains of the Wilson family’s home in Louisville. Credit: Anthony Albidrez
Amber sniffs a blanket and toy that belonged to missing pets Bruno and Bubbles before beginning a search in Superior. Credit: Anthony Albidrez
Duffy (left) stands in silence as Amber comforts Robert Parish (right) after signaling that his and his partner’s dog, Bruno, and cat, Bubbles, did not survive the destruction of the Marshall Fire in Superior. Many people in Louisville and Superior lost more than homes to the fire. They also lost a huge part of their family — their pets. Credit: Anthony Albidrez
Fabiana Jorge (left) and Robert Parish (right) survey the area where Amber signaled the final location of Bruno and Bubbles. Jorge and Parish are among the Boulder County residents who have been severely impacted by the Marshall Fire that burned into the new year, destroying more than 1,000 homes and killing or displacing many beloved pets. Credit: Anthony Albidrez
Lead by dedicated team members like Amber, the nonprofit search and rescue organization Justice Takes Flight has helped 20 families find closure surrounding the loss of their pets after the Marshall Fire. Credit Anthony Albidrez

Want to help the people in this story? GoFundMe campaigns are ongoing for the Wilson Family and Fabiana Jorge and Robert Parish.

Jezy Gray was the former managing editor of Boulder Reporting Lab. In addition to years of writing on the culture, politics and history of my home state of Oklahoma, he was the final editor-in-chief of the Tulsa Voice, a local bi-weekly newspaper where I led a small but mighty team of journalists to regional and national honors in feature writing, diversity reporting, LGBTQ+ coverage and more.