Decker and Stella sniff for survivors, and danger, amid Montecito devastation

Trained search dogs Stella and Decker both fell into a pool while checking debris piles with their handlers Thursday in Montecito, where rescue teams are dealing with gas leaks, hidden pools and other dangers.
(Brittny Mejia / Los Angeles Times)

Amid the mud and wreckage of Montecito’s East Valley Road Thursday, scent dogs Stella and Decker stood with a five-member search-and-rescue team outside a destroyed home.

Before the men and dogs approached the structure however, the San Diego-based team reviewed a number of potential dangers — gas leaks, moving water, hidden swimming pools, electrical wires and deep mud.

“There’s astronomical safety hazards going on here,” said Scott Fuller, logistics team manager with Cal Task Force 8.

The two-legged searchers had duct tape wrapped around their pant legs to keep mud from sucking their boots off. Neither Stella nor Decker wore boots, though.


“OK, search,” handler Brent Brainard called out to Decker, a black Labrador and Weimaraner mix. Decker raced off along debris piles in the backyard, trying to catch a scent of survivors.

When people survive disasters such as the huge mudslide that struck Montecito on Tuesday, Brainard said, they tend to find empty spaces where they can wait things out. Brainard kept a close eye on Decker as he balanced on piles of trees reaching to the house’s second story.

During the search, Decker passed broken tables, downed trees and household items that had been flushed outside. As each pile was searched, pink tape was placed on trees to show that it had been checked.

As Decker moved closer to the house, however, he was suddenly swallowed by mud.


“Oh [expletive], a swimming pool!” Brainard shouted. “Decker just went in!”

After scrambling to rescue Decker, it was Stella’s turn to investigate the area. She disappeared into the pool too — this time at the other end.

After both dogs were back on solid ground and had shaken off the muck, the team prepared to move on, but not before they wrote “pool” on the wall outside the property.


“We’ve never had to go through mud like that,” said Matthew Kirk, Stella’s handler of eight years. “It’s definitely very challenging.”

Had Decker or Stella found a survivor, the dogs would be given toys as a reward.

Stella gets a plush toy instead of the typical old fire hose that’s given to other dogs. That’s because she’s missing half her jaw due to a tumor that was removed last June. The fire hose is too tough on her jaw (She will retire in April of next year.)


Brainard agreed with Kirk that the conditions in Montecito were entirely new. “I haven’t been on anything like this in California before,” said Brainard, who has had Decker for four years. He got Decker from the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation.

“This is next level — the trees, the electrical wires, the gas we just discovered, this place is a wreck,” Fuller said. It reminded him of Katrina. He did a reconnaissance flight over the area. “The thoughts inside my head were like, how are they ever going to recover from that. And I look at this and I go, how are these people ever going to recover from this? But they will. With resilience, help from the state and feds, a lot of hard work. They will somehow.”