On alert: Search and Rescue teams prepare for a busy winter
This week is Backcountry Awareness Week and with snow on the ground, the different Search and Rescue teams around the Lake Tahoe Basin are preparing for what they expect to be a busy season.
Washoe County Search and Rescue president Brian Block said despite COVID, they’ve been able to prepare as normal with the exception of the avalanche classroom training being held online. They have about 30 volunteers with two full-timers. They are assisted by the special vehicle unit, the WOOF team and Hasty Team, which is a highly trained unit specializing in backcountry, dive, swiftwater, helicopter hoist and technical rope rescue.
They have started the field portion of the training at Galena where they’ve been following COVID guidelines.
The Wilderness Finders Search Dog Teams (WOOF) consists of highly trained professional volunteer dogs and handlers who are on call for search and rescue in the basin and surrounding areas.
The WOOF team has not yet started training this season because there isn’t enough snow quite yet.
“To train dogs to find people in the snow, you need to bury people in the snow,” said WOOF president Mary Cablk.
Cablk said they will build snow caves to put people in, along with the dog’s favorite toy. The toy is a reward for finding the person.
While some trainers will train the dogs to find pieces of clothing, Cablk said she wants the dogs to be trained to find people, not their packs or clothing items that may have separated from them during the avalanche.
“People don’t realize how difficult it is to dig in snow that has shifted and been compacted,” said Cablk. “Imagine exerting the energy to dig just to find a glove.”
Time is of the essence for the survival of the person and searching can be extremely tiring for the dogs who don’t have snowshoes to help them easily walk on snow so completely the search as quickly and efficiently as possible is imperative.
The dogs are also trained to ride on snowmobiles or in snowcats, and dogs at the resorts are trained to ride on chairlifts.
El Dorado County and Douglas County search and rescue teams have both been revving up as well.
EDCSAR has three full time staff, about 30 volunteers in the Tahoe region of the county and 10 collateral deputies who can step in to help with a search if needed.
Deputy Greg Almos heads the Office of Emergency Services which oversees SAR. He said the number of volunteers this year is comparable to previous years despite COVID.
DCSAR has about 30 volunteers to go out in the field and about 20 special support personnel such as snowcat drivers which longtime volunteer John Soderman said is a normal number.
While training looks basically the same, Soderman said some of their field work might change a little. He said the teams will be carrying gloves and masks to give to people they rescue if they are capable of wearing them.
“If someone comes out of run in a different place than they expected to, we’re less inclined to give them a ride back to their car if a friend could come help them instead,” Soderman.
However, while the teams will be taking COVID into consideration, it will never be at the expense of someone’s safety.
All of the teams said whether the year is busy or not depends on the amount of snow there is but they also all said COVID could impact the number of people in the backcountry.
“We’ll likely see a big increase in less educated, less skilled and solo rescues; the people who ‘just wanted to get away from the resorts,’” said Almos.
He believes they’ll see more local rescues from people avoiding the crowds at the resorts.
Block thinks it won’t just be an increase in backcountry skiers and snowboarders, it will likely be an increase in snowshoers, cross country skiers and snowmobilers.
All of the teams emphasize the importance of having the proper equipment and training if people plan to get in the backcountry.
“I can’t emphasize enough the importance of wearing an avalanche beacon, traveling with others and having a shovel and probe. A GPS is a good idea too,” said Block.
Almos fears that because of COVID and the stigma around traveling, people may be reluctant to share their travel plans with people but he emphasizes the importance of telling friends and family your plans when going out into the backcountry.
Soderman said some people are hesitant to call SAR because they believe it will cost them, however SAR is free. The only thing that would cost is the ambulance ride or a CareFlight ride.
“If you’re lost or hurt, don’t hesitate to call 911,” Soderman said.
He added that they can track people using the GPS on their phone so if they call immediately, it is easier to find them before their phone dies and it gets dark.
Another thing that holds people back is embarrassment, Soderman said.
“Some of the more experienced people get embarrassed to admit they are lost but everyone can get lost no matter what the skill level,” Soderman said.
He also adds that he has fun going out to a rescue so never feel bad about calling for help.
Cablk said the WOOF team enjoys the job too.
“Avalanche work is super fun for the dogs and it’s relatively easy for them to pick up,” Cablk said.
However, she added that it’s one of the most technically challenging jobs for handlers.
The majority of the rescues Soderman has done are in Cold Creek and the Minden Mile. He said it’s important to know your skill level and the routes you want to take before going out.
All teams stress the need to look at conditions before going out.
To find daily snow conditions, visit http://www.sierraavalanchecenter.org.
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