Castro Valley resident Eric Sheets and his dog, Seven, volunteered with the California Rescue Dog Association (CARDA) at the recent mudslide at Oso, Washington.
By Linda Sandsmark
CASTRO VALLEY FORUM
Castro Valley resident Eric Sheets and his dog “Seven” just returned from the small town of Oso, Washington, which was engulfed by a huge mudslide on March 22.
Sheets and Seven are volunteers with the California Rescue Dog Association (CARDA), a brave group that helps find lost people in emergency situations.
“When you get the call, you go if you can, despite the hazards,” says Sheets.
“I was taken aback, because I’ve been through lots of searches and thought I knew what a mudslide was like. But entire houses and cars were crushed. It was a violent event, and we were told that a million cubic yards of material came across a river and into the town at somewhere between 60 to 100 miles per hour. The people there had no chance to get away.”
Sheets and Seven had to be especially careful in this environment, always looking for boards or something solid to stand on. If they did not, the rescuers would have sunk into waist-high mud. Other potential hazards included septic tanks, antifreeze and chemicals that had been swept along in the debris.
Sheets and his dog searched at the site for three days, then were relieved by other volunteers from California, Oregon, Arizona, Montana and even New York. It was still cold and rainy, so the dogs worked in shifts to avoid hypothermia.
The search area itself was at least a mile square, where dozens of evacuators were working at the same time. Sheets and Seven worked out of Darrington, another small community just east of Oso.
The saddest thing for the rescue workers was seeing the first responders. These were local neighbors and members of the Darrington volunteer fire department, who knew friends and family members lost in the mud. Yet they welcomed the outside workers — and their dogs — grateful for the help. The residents helped outfit the volunteers and made sure their needs were taken care of.
“It was humbling to see how strong they were,” says Sheets.
Although CARDA volunteers are not allowed to discuss specific discoveries made in the mudslide, nor provide photos of the site, Sheets says the dogs did an amazing job and that California should be proud.
“The disaster was a call to action to help find those who hadn’t been found yet. It was clear how hurt Darrington was, because it’s such a small, tight-knit rural community almost everyone knows each other,” says Sheets.
“It’s very sad, because some 30 people, maybe more, were lost in this devastation that they just could not avoid. But it was heartwarming and rewarding too, because the community still has faith and that carries them on.”
Sheets says that team effort got the CARDA members all home safe and sound. He knew his wife and friends were worried, and was able to reassure them that the community members (including Washington state, California Office of Emergency Services, and FEMA) all looked out for them.
Eric Sheets has been involved in search and rescue work since he was in the Coast Guard in 1986. He’s been a Castro Valley resident since 1993 and has volunteered with canine search and rescue since 1996.
Currently there are 120 dog/trainer teams in CARDA, with another 100 teams in training. As with many volunteer jobs, it’s very expensive. When a dog is bitten by a rattlesnake, vet bills can run as high as $1,000. Inhaling a foxtail is not only painful for a dog, but can cost $300 for removal and treatment. Each volunteer can put 10,000 to 20,000 miles on their vehicle per year. Countless hours are spent in training, and standards are very high for certification.
“It’s a life calling. Some people do soup kitchens or build homes. I want to help others and can’t sit still when I see something like this on the news. I love dogs and working outside. It feels good to contribute and bring somebody home in a desperate situation,” says Sheets.
As to why his Blue Australian Cattle Dog is named “Seven,” it’s short for Lucky Seven. Seven’s mother had been x-rayed before delivering her litter of puppies five years ago, and six puppies showed up. She delivered all six, but suddenly 12 hours later a seventh puppy popped out. That puppy was Seven, who has gone on to become an excellent search and rescue worker.
“I say he’s the Seventh dog out of six,” says Sheets.
CARDA is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization (www.carda.org) that operates 24 hours a day to help find missing people. Donations are always needed to help with travel costs, veterinary emergencies, and operational expenses. Contributions may be sent to CARDA, 4061 East Castro Valley Blvd. No. 209, Castro Valley, CA 94552. CARDA also welcomes corporate sponsors.