On Dec. 4, 2017, the evening the Thomas Fire started, employees at the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) in Santa Paula prepared emergency bags with dog food, water, leashes, medicine and other necessities as they evacuated with 26 in-training search and rescue dogs to a hotel in Ventura.

“A majority of the dogs are shelter dogs,” said Denise Sanders, communications and development officer for SDF. “They stayed at the hotel for more than two weeks in a conference room and were still able to perform training on the beach.”

The fire ended up destroying an 1800 historic cabin with Wheeler Canyon artifacts and Search City, a rescue training area where dogs and handlers from across the U.S. train to become certified for disaster search and rescue missions. Search City is part of the National Training Center (NTC), which took three years to build and also houses kennels, beginning and advanced training areas, handlers’ accommodations, classrooms and offices. The center was only open for three months prior to the Thomas Fire.

“All of Search City was lost, unfortunately. We had eight buildings and a train car that were completely destroyed,” Sanders said. “The finished training props weren’t completed yet and we did the best we could with what we had.”

Search City damages exceeded $1 million and insurance was able to cover all costs. A year and a half later, construction for the new Search City is complete, with a convenience store, single-story house, two-story house, three different facades with debris that help challenge the dogs with their foot work, an auto yard with parts and fluids removed from the abandoned vehicles and three train cars, including a sleeper car containing different compartments.

“We want the dogs to be challenged and make the mistakes here before they go out into a real life situation,” Sanders said. “Not only do they get to ‘play’ search, their favorite game in the whole world, but they also work on their strength and core.”

A scent delivery system was also incorporated into various hiding areas of Search City. 

“The dogs search with their noses only and can pinpoint where the strongest scent source is within 20 seconds or less,” Sanders said.

SDF is currently accepting donations for furniture and appliances, interior and exterior furnishings, convenience store items, precast items and barrels and vehicles to be used as props.

“When the dogs are searching the houses, they’re not just searching an empty home, they’re searching a house that has things all over the floor to replicate a hurricane or earthquake disaster — nothing stays in the cabinets,” Sanders said. “That’s what they’re facing in a true disaster.”

Sanders said all donated items and vehicles must be intact and are also tax deductible as an in-kind donation.

“It’s surreal looking at [Search City] now,” Sanders said. “The donations will help add to the look and feel of Search City.”

For more information on how to donate to the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, visit www.searchdogfoundation.org or call 805-646-1015.