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.”
I’m the managing editor of the Boulder Reporting Lab. In addition to years of writing on the culture, politics and history of my home state of Oklahoma, I 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. I look forward to listening to and learning from the Boulder community as we work together on telling the stories that matter here.
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I'm a contributor for the Boulder Reporting Lab focused on photojournalism and a master's student in journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. I previously was a freelancer writer and photographer at Las Cruces Bulletin and an intern at Las Cruces Sun-News, both in my home state of New Mexico.
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