ENTERPRISE — Wallowa County Search and Rescue teams were busy in 2020 and are recruiting new members, according to a press release.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, more people than usual came to Wallowa County to enjoy healthy outdoor activities. As a result, calls were more numerous and more intense. Missions included several days of rescues of stranded hunters in vehicles in deep snow at Hat Point and the Imnaha Country, Hells Canyon searches deep within the wilderness, numerous rescues of sick and injured hikers from the Eagle Cap Wilderness that included numerous helicopter extractions, searchers clearing the trail in to rescue and raft trips on the Minam and Grande Ronde rivers for rafting accidents.
During the past year, teams were busy hiking the wilderness, driving snowmobiles or side-by-sides, rafting rivers, using search dogs, practicing avalanche rescue, testing its drone, transporting injured hikers on mules or directing rescue helicopters to extract subjects from steep terrain.
Wallowa County SAR members are local volunteers who respond when the Wallowa County Sheriff’s Office needs help with a search or rescue. They are trained and certified through the Oregon State Sheriffs Association. Specialty teams include incident command, canine search dogs, swiftwater rescue, ropes rescue, winter team (both mechanized and backcountry skiers), medical team, drone team, equine team (riding and packing), communications, man-tracking and base camp. These teams get advanced training and certifications. Most members are on multiple teams. One of the most important roles in our group is the person responsible for callout of the members to go on a search.
Due to the increase of visitors and callouts, Wallowa County SAR is looking for new members. New members need to be able to commit time to certify (two weekends for training) and attend monthly training and meetings and go on searches. Search skills include learning to use Global Positioning System, radios, map phone apps, map and compass, first aid and search techniques. Once members are certified, they can apply to join specialty teams.
For people interested in SAR but not in the active role of searcher, there are opportunities as an auxiliary member for office support, vehicle support, base camp, food and logistics.
Volunteering for SAR is demanding but rewarding, the release states. To volunteer, a person first needs to apply at the sheriff’s office. After a background check, the applicant will be contacted to attend a meeting.
Some of the most common SAR calls and how to avoid getting into those situations include:
1. Vehicles stuck in the snow. Weather in Wallowa County is extreme and moves quickly. Check with the National Weather Service before you travel. If the conditions on backcountry roads become snowy, consider turning around and backtracking because the road is only going to get even deeper with snow. Even if you see tracks ahead, having four-wheel drive does not mean one will make it.
2. Hiking in Hells Canyon. The terrain is steep due to it being the deepest river canyon in North America. The trails are often hard to find and the weather varies from top to bottom. Rattlesnakes, poison ivy and ticks are numerous. Helicopter rescues for nonmedical reasons are unlikely, as they are expensive and not always available. Also, it takes rescuers a long time to reach the river.
3. Hikers crossing snowfields and sliding to an injury. This happens regularly and is dangerous. Avoid crossing the snowfield without ice equipment.
4. Overdue hiker. Hikers should leave detailed information with someone about where they are going and when they will be done. Let the contact person know that cellphone coverage may not be available. The contact person should be notified with changes of plans.
5. Altitude sickness coupled with dehydration. In this case, drink as much water as possible and carefully move to a lower elevation and rest.
Many people in the backcountry expect immediate rescue. Helicopters cannot automatically swoop in every time. SAR volunteers must leave their work and then hike, drive or ride to the destination once the victim’s location is ascertained. Rescue can take quite a while so those enjoying the backcountry are urged to take this into consideration.
For more information, contact Brent Neely at 541-398-8385 or Holly Akenson 541-398-0498.