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Searching for cremated remains in the ashes of Oregon’s wildfires

It’s difficult to fathom the speed at which the Almeda Fire burned through the southern Oregon communities of Talent and Phoenix.

“If somebody would have told me on Monday that my friggin' house would be gone on Tuesday, I would have said they were out of their minds,” says Nancy Zaremba, who was one of thousands who lost their homes in Oregon’s Labor Day fires.

Zaremba had lived for eight years in a tidy mobile home retirement community in Phoenix. She’d just gotten out of the shower when she noticed the smoke outside.

“And then all of a sudden, somebody’s at my door and they say, ‘Get in your car and leave.’ And I said I have to get my cat and my husband’s ashes,” she recalls. “And then the fire guy goes, ‘No, get in your car and leave now.’… And I left. And that was the end of that.”

After the fire, she found a cracked birdbath, a concrete angel her husband had bought her decades ago, and lots of rubble. The cremated ashes – or cremains – of her husband Ray were somewhere in the mess.

That’s when Zaremba reached out to Alta Heritage Foundation.

On a crisp October morning, Zaremba walks archeologist Mike Newland and dog handler Lynne Engelbert up her driveway. She points to a section of debris in the footprint of her burned and leveled house.

“So that was the dining room — from the colander to where that (brick) is. He was right in there,” she says.

A team of volunteer archeologists led by Mike Newland are here to find those cremains.

“This doesn’t look like it’s been messed up, so that’s good. Nobody’s been in here poking around. That’s great,” he says, offering reassurance to Zaremba.

Being back at the site where she lost so much, Zaremba is a jumble of emotions. One moment she seems OK, the next she’s in tears.

“I know it’s ashes, but we were saving them for when I die so our daughter could put us together,” she says.

A California-based nonprofit, Alta Heritage Foundation is helping wildfire victims recover the cremated ashes of family members. Alta formed a few years back after California’s Tubbs Fire, and since then its volunteers have worked all across their home state. They offer their services for free, relying on donations to cover expenses.

After the Labor Day fires in Oregon, dozens of people like Zaremba reached out to Alta Heritage for assistance. The group is working in Oregon for the first time.

“These poor people have lost everything. A lot of times, this is the only thing that they want,” says Newland, who’s recovered cremains from seven fires.

Englebert brings in her dog Piper, a rescue from Lakeview. Piper has been trained to detect historic and prehistoric human remains. With Alta, they’ve worked around 300 different homes, but still Piper seems to get a little stage fright.

“She’s a very soft dog. I just try to stay out of her head. That’s why I was saying everybody’s got to move back, because there’s a tension that builds up and she can feel it,” she says.

Piper moves quickly across the rubble of Zaremba’s home with her nose a few inches above the ground. She crisscrosses the foundation, occasionally looking to Engelbert for hand signaled instructions.

“She’s been trained to either lie down or sit when she finds human remains,” she says.

A few minutes pass. Piper lies down. She’s picked up the signal.

After consulting with Engelbert, Newland brings his team to the spot.

“Piper has given us a strong alert here. This is also exactly where the homeowner said that remains were… That’s good. I like that,” he tells them.

Dressed head-to-toe in heavy-duty masks and crisp-white hazmat jumpsuits, the team starts removing debris with trowels and dustpans.

Searching for a specific type of ash among all the other ash left after a fire is tricky. The box that held Ray’s ashes almost certainly burned away. So the crew members are looking for a pocket of sediment that’s a slightly different color or texture than the surroundings.

“So one of the first things to start thinking about, particularly my historic archaeology peeps here who do a lot of building reconstruction stuff, start thinking about how this building collapsed — which way the stuff has fallen,” Newland says to his crew. “What is the stuff that’s on top? Think stratigraphy here. Have you got wall? Have you got ceiling? What is it exactly that you’re looking at?”

On this trip to Oregon, Newland is training volunteer archeologists from all over the Pacific Northwest so this kind of “disaster archeology” can happen in more communities.

“We’re just taking the methods (from archeology), picking up and dropping it into something new. It’s a brand-new field,” he says.

Amira Ainis, an archeologist with PaleoWest, traveled down from Eugene to help. This is her first time working in a fire disaster zone.

“The intensity of being here and seeing it and feeling it in person is not the same as looking at a picture,” she says.

The experience of working these homes as an archeologist is different as well.

“As an archaeologist … we’re usually trying to reconstruct huge broad patterns over long periods of time, and it’s hard to get at that individual-like specific moment,” Ainis says. “And in this situation, we’re seeing moments — very detailed moments of people’s lives.”

After about an hour of work, Newland’s team finds a distinctive deposit of ash – a light salmon color in a field of grey.

“Burn this color into your memory. There’s really not much else in the house that necessarily looks like this,” he explains. “Something about that size is about the right size for cremation.”

He calls the trainees down to feel the texture of the sediment, rough with tiny bone fragments. The ash is situated in a homogenous clump, apparently having dropped straight down from the spot where in the dining room where it had been.

“It’s perfect. You couldn’t ask for better results,” Newland says.

The team bags the cremains and takes them over to Zaremba, explaining that Ray’s ashes are mixed with other debris from the house.

“There’s nothing we can do about that. He’s just part of the house,” Engelbert explains.

Zaremba takes the gallon zip-close bags that hold the remains.

“I don’t care. I got him,” she says. “That’s all I care about.”

Piper is trained to detect historic and prehistoric human remains.  Alta uses working dogs to help zero in on where to start searching for cremains in the rubble of burned homes.
Jes Burns /
Piper is trained to detect historic and prehistoric human remains. Alta uses working dogs to help zero in on where to start searching for cremains in the rubble of burned homes.
At a burned home in Phoenix, volunteer crews of archeologists search for two sets of cremains lost in the Almeda Fire.
Jes Burns /
At a burned home in Phoenix, volunteer crews of archeologists search for two sets of cremains lost in the Almeda Fire.
Mike Newland clears away debris around an excavated deposit of light-salmon-colored cremains. He will collect the ash in plastic bags and reunit them with the owner who lost her home in the Almeda Fire.
Jes Burns /
Mike Newland clears away debris around an excavated deposit of light-salmon-colored cremains. He will collect the ash in plastic bags and reunit them with the owner who lost her home in the Almeda Fire.
A team leader with Alta Heritage Foundation shows other volunteers how the creamains they're looking for may appear.
Jes Burns /
A team leader with Alta Heritage Foundation shows other volunteers how the creamains they're looking for may appear.

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