Summer is for fun – and safety |

Summer is for fun – and safety

Troops are currently mobilizing on the West Slope of El Dorado County, and they have your safety and well being in mind.

A veritable army of Sheriff’s Department officers and volunteers are preparing for summer – when the weather is warming, the snow has gone and people start taking advantage of the county’s many recreation opportunities.

That means hiking, biking and frolicking in the waterways; big reasons that El Dorado County is a popular outdoor destination, and a big reason that authorities need to be on their toes.

“A lot of people don’t realize that the West Slope is a major recreation destination,” said Scott Stewart, a deputy with the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department who specialized in search and rescue operations. “Tahoe is world famous for their outdoor recreation,” he said. “But there are a lot of people out and about in other parts of the county, too. And that means that we have to be prepared.”

There are 1,713 square miles of federal and state recreation land in El Dorado County that the Sheriff’s Department has to keep tabs on. Their biggest responsibility is in search and rescue – coming to the aid of people who become lost or disabled on the trail.

“Missing persons cases get our highest priority; we take that very seriously,” Stewart said. “We went out on about 50 search and rescues last season. Some are full-blown Takeout:

Hiking safety tips:

* Be prepared for all kinds of weather. Sudden storms in the summer months can lead to problems on the trail.

* Carry food and water … and a cell phone. A phone won’t always work in the mountains, but it will if you find high ground.

* Tell people where you’re going. Many search and rescue operations are stymied when relatives report someone overdue, but don’t know where they were hiking.searches, some are simple rescues. Most involve tourists or residents who get lost while hiking or hunting. We get at least five deer hunters per season who get lost out there.”

The Sheriff’s Department works in concert with several other agencies to form what Stewart describes as “a well-oiled machine” in providing emergency services in the county.

“We work closely with the U.S. Forest Service, the California Highway Patrol, the various fire districts and the California Department of Forestry; everyone whose a player in the county. We all get along and work very well together.

“We have to. We form the second-largest search and rescue operation in the state, and we have a lot of territory to cover.”

For its part, the Sheriff’s Department employs a handful of full-time personnel and about 200 search and rescue volunteers. The latter are men and women who donate their time and sometimes their money to staff mounted patrol units, backcountry rescue squads, river patrol units and other operations needed to provide an overall safety net. Vehicles and equipment for the volunteers are obtained through fund-raisers and private donations.

“Without these volunteers, we couldn’t do it,” Stewart said. “They are the backbone of the organization.”

Volunteers such as Jim Marino of El Dorado Search and Rescue all have full-time jobs in other areas – Marino is maintenance supervisor in Tahoe Keys – and work for the county 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.”

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 that’s when the Mounted Rescue Unit gets involved.

“A horse is just one part of the puzzle, but he’s an important part,” said Dan Wilson, a Mounted Rescue Unit volunteer. “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.”

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

Funding is scarce, but El Dorado County can be quite resourceful. The Sheriff’s Department recently received three new pieces of equipment – a $141,000 communications vehicle, an $8,000 communications trailer and a new snow cat – at no cost to the taxpayers. The communications van was acquired through a tax forfeiture, the trailer was purchased through donations and the snow cat was donated by the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District.

The Office of Emergency Services was absorbed by the Sheriff’s Department in 1994, making El Dorado County’s search and rescue operation one of the biggest in the state.

“The area off of Ice House Road, from Wright’s Lake to Loon Lake, can accommodate 10,000 people,” Stewart said. “That’s a giant community to look after. There’s a lot of problems that come up on the West Slope, but we’re on top of it.”

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