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Utah search and rescue braces for a tough and expensive season

Washington County’s search and rescue team work to set up a highline. Last month, a family, including children ages 2, 4 and 6, found themselves stranded after a flash flood.
Courtesy of Washington County Search and Rescue
Washington County’s search and rescue team work to set up a highline. Last month, a family, including children ages 2, 4 and 6, found themselves stranded after a flash flood.

Utah search and rescue teams have already headed out on a lot of calls this year

The Utah Department of Public Safety’s Aero Bureau did more than 500 helicopter rescues last year. Only a few months into 2023, the team has gone on more than 200 missions.

The bureau’s Sgt. Wyatt Weber said early in the year, things usually aren’t as busy.

“As spring comes, people get a little cagey and want to get out. You see a lot more rescues.”

Weber said part of the increase in helicopter rescues is due in part to a new response team based in St. George, but officials say they expect the pace of rescues to pick up further as the state’s historic snow melts.

Bracing for flood rescues

Last month, Washington County Search and Rescue helped a family of five trapped on the wrong side of a flash flood in Snow Canyon State Park. When the family first hiked across the wash, it was dry. But they encountered a raging river on the way back.

Sgt. Darrell Cashin, the Washington County Sheriff’s search and rescue liaison, was part of the crew that responded to the call.

“You've got debris. You can't see anything. The water looks like chocolate milk, so you don't even know what you're going into.”

Flash flooding in Snow Canyon in March stranded a family on the Johnson Canyon Trail.
Courtesy of Washington County Search and Rescue
Flash flooding in Snow Canyon in March stranded a family on the Johnson Canyon Trail.

The family was wet and shivering, so Cashin decided to get them out right away instead of waiting for the water to die down. The team set up a highline — similar to a zipline — and got the family across safely.

The whole operation was personal to Cashin. He once responded when a two-year-old had disappeared in a flood. But the call came in too late.

“Unfortunately, she didn't make it, and I was the one that had to carry her out of the water,” Cashin recalled. “I didn't want to have to replay or repeat what I had been through eight years ago.”

Cashin is preparing his swiftwater team for more flood rescues and planning for what happens if they get a sudden burst of calls that all require attention at the same time.

“Since it stayed so cold, I have concern that once it does dry out and warm up, it's going to just take off,” he said.

Further north, Summit County is also gearing up for an increase in calls. Lt. Alan Siddoway is the search and rescue liaison for the sheriff’s office. He said his county’s calls have gone up exponentially over the last few years. Siddoway thinks that’s because people are getting out more than ever since the pandemic, and they’re heading out with more powerful equipment like snowmobiles and ATVs.

“Those capabilities are able to take people into areas that they, even five years ago, may not have been able to get into due to the snow conditions or the trail conditions,” he said. “Sometimes they find that the rider doesn't have the capability to get themselves out of that situation.”

Paying for more rescues

More rescues takes more money. Cashin, the Washington County liaison, estimated that the family highline water rescue cost $3,000 to $4,000.

And teams have to take more than the rescues into account as they are budgeting. Cashin said he’s thinking about where he’s going to get money to train people and to replace old equipment.

Counties pay for search and rescue operations through local taxes, donations and reimbursements from the state. Cashin said he isn’t too worried about their funding though, because Washington County has been carefully managing a reserve fund for difficult years.

But the state says that if rescues keep going up, they could run out of money earlier in the year and not be able to reimburse counties with enough funds to keep them afloat.

Sevier County Sheriff Nathan Curtis is on the State Search and Rescue advisory board.

“We've been worried for a couple of years,” he said. “We've been working on some different projects, trying to be able to create opportunities for funding so that we can help cover those costs.”

One of those is the Utah Search and Rescue Assistance Card. When individuals purchase a card, the money gets added to the search and rescue reimbursement fund. It costs $25 a year for one person and guarantees the owner won’t be charged for a rescue unless that person is doing something extremely reckless.

In Washington County, though, Cashin has only once seen someone be charged for a rescue. It was nearly two decades ago when a man faked his own death and was later found in Australia.

Cashin said the county doesn’t want to charge for rescues.

“One of the concerns is that if people thought or knew that they were going to get charged and they're out there and in trouble, how much longer are [they] going to wait?” he said.

Since counties usually don’t charge anyway, officials see the card as a way for people to contribute to the search and rescue state fund. Curtis from the state advisory board hopes that someday it will help cover more than just basic costs.

“How cool would that be to be able to help your agencies have the latest and greatest equipment?” he said.

Taking personal responsibility

At the end of the day, Siddoway in Summit County said people need to take personal responsibility to avoid the need for rescues.

“If we stopped for just a few minutes before we rode our snowmobile off into that canyon, or off into that drainage, or before we got out of our vehicle to snowshoe in a blizzard — I think some of these calls could be prevented.”

Weber said the Aero Bureau runs an Instagram page to educate people on making smart decisions outdoors.

We talk about what we call an accident chain,” he said. “It's very rarely one bad decision that results in an incident. It's a chain of bad decisions — going out unprepared, without the right clothing after dark, not telling anybody where you're at. Those compound.”

Fewer calls would reduce the strain on search and rescue resources, but Cashin said when he goes out on a rescue in Washington County, funding is the last thing on his mind.

“I don't care what it costs,” he said. “I only care about rescuing the people that we're going after. I will call and get whatever resources I need to rescue that person.”

He said they’ll worry about the money later.

Ciara is a native of Utah and KUER's Morning Edition host
Emily Pohlsander graduated with a journalism degree from Missouri State University and has worked for newspapers in Missouri and North Carolina. She was recognized by the Missouri Press Association for her series on budget cuts in six adjacent school districts.
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