Search dogs lead hunt for more victims of Montecito mudslide

A Santa Barbara County Fire Department search dog looks for victims in a heavily damaged home in Montecito after a deadly mudslide.
(Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

The small white border collie with black spots ran up the side of what used to be a roof of a house at Olive Mill and Hot Springs roads with his handler, Capt. Davis Doty of the Orange County Fire Authority. “Kneel!” Doty yelled at Jester. He obeyed.

For first responders searching through the mud and wreckage, their furry companions become more than just assistants.

“We spend hours every day together, bonding and training,” Doty said. “He’s great.”

Jester is one of eight search-and-rescue dogs scouring the mud and rubble after Tuesday’s deadly mudslide.


The dogs are a key piece of the rescue effort in a neighborhood of Montecito buried by mud. At least 15 bodies have been recovered, and the search is continuing.

Jester and the seven other dogs were trained by the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, a nonprofit that rescues shelter dogs and trains them for disaster search-and-rescue work. The organization then provides them free of charge to handlers at fire departments and other first-response agencies.

Davis Doty with Jester from Orange County Fire Authority work to locate bodies along Olive Mill Road in Montecito.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

Even though the foundation’s 125-acre facility in Santa Paula was damaged when the Thomas fire swept through, burning parts of the dog-training area, and staff and dogs had to evacuate for 18 days, Sanders said they remained dedicated to continuing their mission.

“It never gets old to see the search-and-rescue dogs doing their job.”

Sanders said Jester was set to be euthanized after his owners left him at a shelter. She said Jester graduated the training school in 2008.

Two more dogs are scheduled to arrive on Wednesday.

Jester is eager to work. His eyes remained glued to Doty as they walked side by side through the mud. Doty said Jester hasn’t found any survivors.

“I can’t believe I’m standing in Montecito,” Doty said as he and Jester got ready to press on with their search. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Xero, another search dog, worked her way up a tangle of trees and muds, trying to catch any scent of someone alive in debris piles along Hot Springs Road.

The nearly 4-year-old dog and her handler, Julie Purcell, arrived in the area Tuesday afternoon and started working Wednesday morning. Xero was just certified last March and this is their first real search, said Purcell, 52.

“This is her first time, so she’s pretty wound up,” Purcell said. “There are a lot of places to search, a lot of work to do for everybody.”

Xero is very independent and willing to go into places and search very easily, Purcell said. “I always wanted to do this. I brought her specifically for this,” she said.

“It’s very overwhelming,” Purcell said of the scene in Montecito. “The pictures you see on TV and the news are quite different from what you see when you’re here in real life and you realize the scope of it ... It’s devastating seeing the damage and knowing how hard it’s going to be for so many people to move on.”

“If we’re able to save a life, that’s wonderful. But I think the most ideal thing would be if we were to clear this whole area and not find anybody in here at all and just have property damage to deal with,” Purcell said.