SEARCH AND RESCUE
February 06, 2004 11:00 pm
Logan Couch, left, Derrick Pennington and Bill Van Vliet help Fred Birum in a transport exercise. (Photo by Dewey Brady).
Logan Couch, left, Derrick Pennington and Bill Van Vliet help Fred Birum in a transport exercise. (Photo by Dewey Brady).

By Donald Allison

Pilot Staff Writer

Getting lost in the woods in Curry County is no joke with 1.1 million acres of Siskiyou National Forest at our doorstep.

Fortunately there is a team of woodsmen and women who are trained and volunteer their time to find people lost in the woods.

Curry County's Search and Rescue team went on 15 missions last year, typically mushroom hunters who becomes disoriented by looking at the ground instead of landmarks around them.

Curry County Search and Rescue Coordinator Laurie Calef said other times someone might be walking along a cliff or climbing up rock areas and can't figure out how to get down.

"Darkness comes and they get stranded," Calef said.

She said the team also does water rescues in the county's scenic rivers and waterways, and members recently assisted in recovering a vehicle from the Chetco River.

"We are working on some surf training," Calef said. "It is a fairly new program for us. The (U.S.) Coast Guard covers the outer surf area, and the inner surf area is where we would do work. We have not developed a full training program on it."

Recent purchases of water rescue gear allow the team to do large missions safely.

Calef said on searches, team members are provided with adequate rain gear and Global Positioning System (GPS) units.

There are currently 15 rescue team members, eight-to-10 of whom are active members. When a search requires more people, the call for help is put out to Josephine, Jackson and Del Norte counties, which have assisted Curry County on bigger searches. Curry County Search and Rescue also cooperates with the Civil Air Patrol, the Coast Guard and local fire departments.

When asked about the reward of being a search and rescue team member, Calef said seeing someone's smiling face when coming out a situation they might not have survived.

"Just helping someone out of a tough situation is reward enough for me," she said.

Dangers of the job include cliff areas that are disguised by heavy brush where a rescuer could take an unexpected fall and "widow makers" which are large branches falling from the trees above.

"High winds can cause limbs to come crashing down," she said. "Water rescue has elements of being in an unknown situation because you can't see the hazards under the water."

The team looks at everything "safety first" before anyone is sent into the field. For example, the team uses double security lines for every rescue rope to increase the safety factor, Calef said.

It is also an example of the brother-and-sisterhood the search and rescue team family has.

"We depend on each other to cover our backs and to be there when you need them," Calef said. "We look at each other as a family; sometimes we squabble and sometimes we get along."

During search missions, a base camp is set up and a "camp mom" provides meals for the rescue team members so searchers have somewhere to get a good meal and get rested.

One problem the team faces is the recent loss of a vehicle, a Suburban, that was unable to be repaired.

"We need a vehicle," Calef said.

She said the Curry County Sheriff's Department has been a "wonderful support" of the organization.

"Anytime something is required or needed, they have been there to assist us," she said. "It has been a wonderful partnership."

She also thanked past team members and others who have assisted in missions over the years.

Calif said they are looking for additional rescue team members who are experienced in the back woods or people willing to go through a possibly harrowing evaluation process.

During a recent overnight survival training, a group of prospective teammates spent a rainy night in the woods with only the basic gear they would use searching for a lost person during the day.

Calef said the conditions were not bad, with temperatures in the mid-to-low 40s.

"There was no wind," Calef said of the annual ritual. "It was not a real difficult time."

The prospective heroes are sent into the wilderness one hour before dark to see what kind of survival skills they already already have.

"The have one hour to set up the shelter after dark," Calef said. "They use tree branches, bark or different options."

Observers evaluate the camp and their "overnight survival situation" to see how well the volunteers took care of themselves.

"If they are unable to complete the night, we have a base camp and a tent with a heater so if it is too much for them they can come in and get shelter," Calef said.

Bad weather, inexperience and not being comfortable are the main reasons people come in.

"If you are not prepared for it, it can take you and knock you for a loop," she said. "Cold, wet, sleet, high winds – you never know what kind of conditions we might be putting them into. We do it so they have the opportunity to experience what it might be like to set up camp should (they have to) on a mission."

Often a lost hiker or mushroom picker has been hurt and can't move. If found by a search and rescue team member, they must stay and set up a camp until another team member finds them.

"They also get the opportunity to get the feeling of what the subject is going through," she said. "Our people are much more prepared than the people we take out, but it gives them an idea."

People interested in being certified for the search and rescue team should be physically fit and able to get out into the woods. But, Calef said, there are other areas of the organization that require people who are not necessarily woodsmen.

"We have areas in property management and maintenance of vehicles," she said. "We are willing to talk to people willing to volunteer their time for the organization."

Additional information is available by calling Calef at (541) 469-0275 or the Sheriff's office at (541) 247-3242.