Olivia and Mazie, a pair of experienced detection dogs from the Orange County-based Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 5, have journeyed to Maui along with their local handlers to help in the massive recovery efforts following the deadly wildfires that have devastated the island.
Olivia, a 9-year-old Belgian Malinois, and Mazie, a six-and-a-half-year-old Black Lab, are being joined by their handlers and search team members, 48-year-old Eric Darling and 58-year-old Julie Kirk-Purcell. They are prepared for a 14-day mission, but the deployment could turn out to be longer.
The search and rescue task force is sponsored by the Orange County Fire Authority.
Mazie has seen numerous deployments throughout her career, including the 2022 mudslide in Forest Falls and the North Complex fire in Butte County in 2020. So has Olivia, who turns 10 next month, and has worked the 2022 Hurricane Ian disaster in Florida and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office Homicide Division.
“It’s an honor to help those in (Maui) in this tragic situation,” Darling said. “I’m feeling a sense of deja vu, like no way it’s happening again and how horrible this is for the people there.”
Darling, a retired firefighter from the Long Beach Boeing’s fire department, works part-time in the Urban Search and Rescue Special Operations Division for the Ventura County Fire Department. He has a passion for working dogs and has taken the opportunity to work alongside them for over 20 years.
“Unfortunately, I and many of the other handlers deployed have had far too many of these types of (search and rescue) deployments. However, we know what to look for and how to work the areas,” Darling said.
Darling also assisted during the 2015 Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia and the deadly 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise. His extensive local, state, and federal missions have included both live finds and human remains search and rescue.
The retired firefighter said he is driven to do this work for the chance that every loved one may be returned home to their family, regardless of the outcome.
Purcell, an art professor at Irvine Valley College, said her interest in search and rescue began after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. After starting with a local search team and completing the necessary FEMA training, she has been a part of the Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 5 for about nine years.
“It helps you feel like you’re part of that system of trying to bring closure and help people find their loved ones,” said Purcell. “Whatever it is that you’re doing, whether it’s live find or human remains, you’re trying to help people move forward with their lives after something so immense and tragic happened to them.”
The 58-year-old art professor has worked with dogs from a young age, including herding dogs and raising the animals for the visually impaired.
Darling and Purcell, who have been in Maui since Sunday, said everyone they’re working alongside is driven and motivated to continue doing the best job they can, while also monitoring the health and well-being of the dogs, which are working in hot and humid conditions.
“The dogs don’t have an endgame here so it’s really important to keep them in good spirits the whole time and take care of them in the heat,” said Purcell. “As a handler, one of our main focuses is protecting them, watching over them and making sure they’re needs are being met since they can’t voice those needs.”