Search and rescue teams busy in summer |

Search and rescue teams busy in summer

William Ferchland, Tahoe Daily Tribune

Lucille Cuzzillo doesn’t remember much of what happened that night.

The 78-year-old became lost in rough terrain at Lake Margaret, a long stone’s throw from Kirkwood Nordic Center, just prior to sundown.

She got separated from her hiking party when her lungs couldn’t bring in enough oxygen from the high elevation air. A short-sleeved shirt and hiking shorts provided her only warmth when night time temperatures dipped to near freezing.

When El Dorado County Search and Rescue personal found her the next morning around 8 a.m., she was wet, disoriented and shivering cold.

“I just remember walking out and seeing the guy in the orange and we walked up together,” Cuzzillo said. “I don’t remember anything else.”

El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department Search and Rescue responded to eight calls in June and 10 in July. The seasoned unit of 35 volunteers and law enforcement officers expects August to keep up with those busy numbers.

Cuzzillo became lost on July 26. Since she meets two of the three requirements reserved for a high-risk search — the elderly, young and those with medical problems — a small army of human resources were called to duty.

“We searched all through the night, which is unusual and unsafe for the search members,” said Deputy Terry Fleck, a search and rescue coordinator. About 80 percent of search and rescue calls are used for people injured in the backcountry while the remaining 20 percent is used for searches, Fleck said.

The deputy said calls this summer are generally centered among three “hot-spots.” They include the popular Horsetail Falls, Lake Margaret and Desolation Wilderness in the areas of Eagle and Velma lakes and the Glen Alpine area.

For 22-years, Fleck has been involved with El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department Search and Rescue. The deputy sheriff said one or two lost hikers die each year.

This year there has been one death. On June 30, Mary “Grace” Miller was taking a picture on top of Horsetail Falls. The force of the water made her lose footing and she fell about 200 feet down the tides. Search and rescue was initially called off. Her body has yet to be found.

“It’s a frustrating one because it could bring closure to the family and we haven’t done that,” Fleck said.

A decade ago, search and rescue responded to a missing mentally disabled boy, Kenny Miller, who got separated from his family while hiking along Meiss Meadows near Carson Pass.

After 10 days, search crews, helicopters and sniffing dogs were called off. The boy was found several weeks later by hikers a mile away from the trail. He was confirmed dead of hypothermia after 48 hours of becoming lost.

Bob Anderson, member of the Alpine County Chamber of Commerce, is the president of the El Dorado Search and Rescue Counsel. He’s also been a volunteer for the mounted team for four years and said finding lost hikers is more difficult than people think.

“People tend to do things that cause them to get deeper in trouble,” he said. “Traditionally people go down hill. Kenny Miller went up hill. We don’t know why he did that.”

Anderson’s job as president of the council is fund raising and promotion. Service organizations are solicited for funds and rescued hikers sometimes send checks worth hundreds of dollars, Anderson said. About $3,000 to $5,000 is collected each year.

Under state law, search and rescue can only bill a non-El Dorado County resident of California. That opportunity to bill others is rare, and usually the county absorbs the costs.

The money goes into new equipment, such as ropes, radios and pagers, for volunteers.

Fleck advised hikers to carry three essentials: food, clothing and shelter. He stressed that food includes water, and clothing includes appropriate hiking footwear.

The department responded to 11 backcountry medical calls this summer, most of them caused by tennis shoes slipping on rocks and causing leg injuries, Fleck said.

If a hiker does become lost, Fleck advised the person to get in a clear area and make themselves as “large as possible.”

“The minute you become lost you should stay put,” Fleck said. “People have a tendency to get more lost when they move. Kids are taught hug a tree, that’s good (for adults too.)”

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.