Firefest touches down in Tahoe |

Firefest touches down in Tahoe

Rick Chandler

When it comes to parties, Bill Bates really knows how to make an entrance. But how could you not be the center of attention when you’re landing a twin engine MBB helicopter in the middle of town?

“Everybody seems to love helicopters, and I’m no different,” said Bates, a pilot for the CalStar Search and Rescue unit based in Auburn. “I’ve wanted to be a pilot ever since I was a kid.”

Bates and his crew were one of the big attractions at the Firefest and Home Expo 1998 at Tahoe Middle School on Saturday. And while the crowd was delighted to see them touch down in the middle of the school’s athletic field, their reaction pales in comparison to the appreciation Bates receives when an accident victim sees his helicopter coming to the rescue.

“When someone is seriously injured and way out in nowhere, a lot of the time we’re their only hope,” said Dan Wilson, a paramedic with the CalStar medical team. “Ninety percent of our calls are trauma cases, and many of them are in really remote areas. If it takes more than 30 minutes to hike to a location, they call us.”

Two rescue organizations cover all of El Dorado County. CalStar takes care of the eastern slope, and CareFlight, based in Reno, handles the western slope of the county. They often help each other.

But the air units – which are both private, nonprofit organizations – are just one portion of the county’s “rescue army.” There are also mounted patrols and mobile search and rescue units – all quite dedicated, and most of them volunteers.

“A lot of people don’t realize that we don’t get paid by the state or county,” said Jim Marino of El Dorado Search and Rescue, which also had an exhibit at Saturday’s event. “We have no county budget; we’re entirely volunteer.”

That means Marino and his colleagues use their own equipment, obtained through donations or fund-raisers. All have full-time jobs in other areas – Marino is maintenance supervisor in Tahoe Keys – and work for Search and Rescue in their “spare” time.

“Most of our calls are on weekends, so it works out,” Marino said. “But I love this kind of work. It’s a way to give back to the community, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Well, there are times he might trade it. Search and Rescue can be grueling work, especially during a long hike in a remote area.

“It can take 30 people to move one injured person one mile,” Marino said. “And when you’re in the back country, it can be very difficult. We’ve gone on 40-hour searches, and it’s brutal.”

The Sheriffs Department estimates that rescue calls have nearly doubled in frequency in each of the past five years, and one of the reasons may surprise you: cell phones.

“People often head out into the woods with nothing but a phone,” Marino said. “Suddenly they see they’re in trouble, and they call us.”

Search and Rescue also gets a lot of calls for river rescue and skiing accidents.

But if an injured person is too far off the beaten path for an ambulance or hikers to reach him in time, and the terrain is too rugged for a helicopter, then meet Tigger Man. He’s one of the 10 horses in the County Mounted Rescue Unit, under the direction of the Sheriffs Dept., but again, all volunteer.

“A horse is just one part of the puzzle, but he’s an important part,” said Dan Wilson, who owns Tigger Man and had him on display Saturday – to the delight of hundreds of children. “They’re used a lot as pack horses, getting medical supplies, food or gear to injured people.”

Even in this day an age, there are still situations where the horse can’t be beat.

“It wasn’t too long ago, in the East Meadow area, where a rider fell off a horse and broke his leg,” Wilson said. “We only had one person who could respond, an officer named Tina Froberg. She rode in and took care of the situation completely. She got the guy out, got his horse unstuck out of a creek and got them back safely, all by herself.”

Wilson, a South Lake Tahoe resident for 25 years, trained Tigger Man himself. All the mounted officers own their own horses and provide their own equipment.

A rescue operation can be expensive – costing up to $10,000 for an air rescue. But in most cases the injured parties are not liable for costs.

“Sometimes, if the person is from out of county and is negligent, we will charge their county of origin,” Marino said. “But the money we receive does not go to us; it goes to our county’s general fund. It would be nice if we could change things and get maybe 3 percent of that money for new equipment. The board of supervisors should consider that.”

Horses and helicopters and rescuing citizens in distress is all very nice, but some attendees at Saturday’s event had their own idea of fun.

“I liked the Sierra Pacific booth,” said Kit Harlend, 9. “They had a demonstration about how to be safe with electricity.”

To each his own.

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