Search dogs and archaeologists look for cremated remains amid a wildfire’s debris

Search dogs and archaeologists look for cremated remains amid a wildfire’s debris


Shepha Schneirsohn Vainstein didn’t know where her mom was.

The smashed red tile roof of her Agoura Hills home had become the floor. The fireplace was now exposed, its stony chimney set hard against a blue morning sky. A brick oven survived in the kitchen. A washer and dryer a few feet away — scorched and scarred by flames — did not.

For the record:

10:25 a.m. Dec. 6, 2018An earlier version of this article said Michael Newland is

Around the corner, or where a corner once was marked by walls, was where she remembered her mom, Evelyn Estrellita Schneirsohn, last being. But then she remembered she’d also kept her cremated ashes on a curled maple credenza in a hallway near the bathroom for a time after she died over the summer at age 89.

Things have been blurry since the Woolsey fire began last month. Escape had been quick and the scale of destruction wasn’t clear until Vainstein came back last weekend to try to find her mom’s ashes in the deep piles of soggy debris.


Vainstein needed help. She refused to leave her mother’s cremains behind to be scooped up and end in some heap of garbage, but she didn’t know where to start. She and her family — including three sisters — had promised Schneirsohn that her remains would be scattered in the new year on Boney Ridge in Newbury Park. She’d do the same for us, Vainstein said.

She went to Sacred Crossings, the mortuary that prepared Schneirsohn’s remains. They suggested she try the Institute for Canine Forensics.

The help arrived in a few cars, each inching its way down the uneven dirt driveway beneath a canopy of trees crisped by fire. Lynne Engelbert was the first one out. With white hair lightly streaked with purple, she approached Vainstein outside the rubble of her home and explained how the search would work.

Two border collies — Piper and Jasper — would smell for the scent of the cremains in locations Vainstein thought her mom might be. Once the dogs identified where the ashes were, a team of archaeologists would begin to excavate and recover the cremains.

Vainstein, 59, nodded. Her older sister, Karen Sorensen, rubbed her sister’s back. They told Engelbert a bit about their mom.

She was an elementary school teacher who taught in East Los Angeles for almost 20 years. She loved to follow politics and talk politics even more. She smoked and drank, but also ate whole-wheat bread and avocados almost daily. She loved art, especially paintings. In a letter, Schneirsohn’s father described her as the one who was “dancing, drawing and daydreaming.”


And she loved her family, Vainstein said. She told Engelbert about how they’d all gathered at the house and sang “Happy Birthday” to her before she died. Schneirsohn had lost weight and was frail, but the matriarch wouldn’t let that stop her from enjoying the moment. That was another Schneirsohn trait; she was determined.

“Let’s get to work then,” Engelbert said.

A search dog named Jasper sniffs through the rubble of Shepha Schneirsohn Vainstein's home looking for Vainstein's mother's cremated remains.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The Institute for Canine Forensics is a nonprofit that’s been around for about 17 years. It has primarily focused on identifying ancient sites for archaeologists for preservation purposes. Piper had recently been to the South Pacific searching for remains of Amelia Earhart. Sometimes, they were brought in by utility companies to scout areas for ancient burial grounds before digging and developing.

But last year, Engelbert heard from Alex DeGeorgey, an archaeologist, who told her of a colleague who had asked whether it might be possible to recover the cremated remains of his parents; he hadn’t had time to gather them as he fled the wine country fires. DeGeorgey said he didn’t know if it would work, but he contacted Engelbert.

The idea that this was a need had never crossed Engelbert’s mind.

She took Piper out to the burned home. DeGeorgey said the cremains were found within minutes. A story in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported the effort, and that spurred more requests. Lost cremains of parents and children — could they find them, too?

Nick Rasmussen, who had to leave the remains of his brother and father as his house burned in the wine country fires, said his sister told him about the dogs and archaeologists. He wasn’t sure it would work, but Piper quickly found the remains.

“I was emotional. My sister was emotional when the archaeologist handed her my brother,” Rasmussen said. “It gave us a lot of closure. There are certain things you just can’t replace.”

Adela Morris, director of the Institute of Canine Forensics, said the nonprofit has seen requests explode as wildfires continue to ravage California. She said they already have about 100 requests to recover cremains in the Paradise area and will start there in mid-December.

Morris said the requests are outpacing staffing. All of the searchers’ time is donated and the expenses come out of their own pocket. There is a GoFundMe page that has raised about $13,000, with a goal of $30,000. They are training more archaeologists to aid in the voluntary recovery work. There is no charge for the service they provide.

At Vainstein’s house, three archaeologists were on their first recovery attempt of cremains lost in a fire. Michael Newland, an archaeologist with Environmental Science Associates, was leading the search for Vainstein’s mother.

Dressed in white chemical suits, they watched as Engelbert directed Piper to begin the search. The dog carefully walked over piles with nails sticking out and under twisted pipes. Her nose stayed close to the ground, twitching and sniffing like a small vacuum.

Shepha Schneirsohn Vainstein, left, and her sister Karen Sorensen watch as archeologist Michael Newland sifts through rubble to recover the cremated remains of their mother.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Near where Vainstein said the credenza was, Piper angled herself beneath a bent piece of metal that once was a sink bowl and began to dig. Engelbert called Piper off and Morris brought in her dog, Jasper.

Jasper moved around the piles deliberately. He picked up the same scent, but he also picked up a scent where Vainstein had thought her mom could be. With two spots narrowed down, the archaeologists began to remove debris and, as they reached the floor, began using more delicate tools as the search was fine-tuned.

“We need to peel it back one layer at a time,” Newland said.

The small trowels and excavation tools yielded no cremains. Newland asked to bring the dogs back in to check the spot near the front door. Piper came out. Sniffed. Circled. Sniffed again. And then lay down.

Vainstein teared up.

“She found her,” she said. Sorensen came over and put her arm around her sister.

Jasper followed up. He sat where Piper had lain down.

“That’s confirmation,” Engelbert said.

The archaeologists went back to work. More debris was pushed aside. Nearby, utility workers restoring power lines broke the morning stillness with chainsaws, cutting away burned branches from dead trees.

Carefully working around wet drywall with a small trowel resembling a metal spatula, Colleen Delaney, professor of archaeology at Cal State Channel Islands, found a burned book, its pages crisp and blackened. A partial word was still readable on the edge of a crisp white page.

“Were they near this book?” Delaney asked.

Vainstein couldn’t remember. The dogs wandered around the site. The archaeologists continued to move surgically around the area. And then they spotted something: a pile of ashes that had a pinkish hue. The cloth bag that they had been in was burned, but some of the fabric was still intact.

They were Schneirsohn’s remains. Delaney pulled up a small metal piece that was etched with a number. It was the identification of the remains and the mortuary that had done the cremation. Engelbert said the tag is crucial for proof that they are the cremains.

The ashes were placed in bags. They’d still need to dry out, but Vainstein was glad to have them.

“I’m very happy we’ll be able to fulfill her wishes of what she wanted for her remains,” she said. “My mom is in our hearts.”

Her voice hitched as she explained to Engelbert, Morris and the other archaeologists what it meant to recover the cremains.

“This is what she wanted — to have her ashes scattered on Boney Ridge,” Vainstein said. “That was her view from her home, and she loved that view. That was what she wanted. That was her highlight.”

She had been found. And now her daughters could do as she’d asked.

Search dog handler Lynne Engelbert, left, hugs sisters Shepha Schneirsohn Vainstein (hidden) and Karen Sorensen after giving them a bucket carrying their mother's cremated remains recovered from Vainstein's home in Thousand Oaks.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times) | Twitter: @davemontero