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Douglas County search and rescue missions on the rise

March 31, 2018

ROSEBURG, Ore. (AP) — “My first thought is, ‘We’ve got ‘em.’”

Darkness had already fallen when Rick Fugate heard a faint voice while searching the steep traverses of the Oregon Coast near Reedsport.

He called for radio silence and started a sound sweep, yelling for two men that had gotten lost while mushroom picking.

As he worked his way down a rough, steep drainage he heard a distinct voice.

“Help me,” it said.

At that point, he knew they had found them.

“The emotions that run through you, they’re second to none,” Fugate said.

He described the rescue as an emotional day for searchers and family alike.

“It’s such an emotional feeling for everybody,” Fugate said, “You’ve got moms, dads, family members wanting them to come back, the day before Thanksgiving especially.”

Fugate is one of more than 100 volunteers with the Douglas County Search and Rescue team.

Sporting a cross-body bag filled with a GPS, compass, radio, flashlight and maps, Fugate is teaching volunteers hoping to become certified on a chilly, overcast Saturday in March.

Selina Loos was at the training as more than a dozen volunteers headed into the woods to practice their navigation skills.

“I think it’s a good opportunity to learn about our area and it’s a great way to train so that I can help others,” Loos said.

In 2017, Douglas County rescue missions almost doubled, from 61 missions in 2016 to 104 last year.

Brian Melvin, Douglas County Search and Rescue’s coordinator, said the increases can be attributed to two things: an ever-increasing elderly population and young people that are too reliant on their phones.

“We’ve seen an uptick in elderly Alzheimer’s victims,” Melvin said, “They don’t know they’re lost. We’ve found people who have been gone for days and they’ll tell you they’ve only been gone for a couple of hours.”

He said younger people are following directions on their phone maps that may lead them up logging roads where it’s easy to become lost and disoriented.

“We try to tell people it’s a tool, don’t bet your life on this piece of technology,” Melvin said.

He recalled a rescue mission outside of Riddle, where a man got stuck in the snow trying to get home to Gold Beach.

“We saw where he had turned around several times and when we got to him we asked him, ‘We saw where you had turned around coming down the mountain, but then you turned around and went back,’” Melvin said, “He literally said, ‘Because my GPS kept re-routing me to go back over the top of the mountain.’”

Across the state, the age group most commonly rescued is 20 to 29, according to the 2014 annual search and rescue report.

Oregon Search and Rescue coordinator Scott Lucas attributes some of the increase to lack of preparedness.

He said people will go out hiking without bringing a backpack or preparing for the elements.

“They just think I’ll go hiking and if I get in trouble I’ll just call somebody,” Lucas said, “I also think people don’t prepare like they used to.”

He also said an increasing population could also be a factor in the rise. With more people exploring the outdoors and more people traveling away from their homes for trips, search and rescue agencies across the state are seeing an increase in calls, he said.

Lucas said there were nearly 1,200 missions across the state last year, a 14 percent increase from 2014.

Both Lucas and Fugate said the types of rescues change with the seasons.

There are lost mushroom pickers in spring, lost hikers in summer, lost hunters in fall and vehicles stuck in the snow in winter.

The county’s rescue program has separate search teams including a K9 rescue team, a four-wheel team, searchers on horseback, a snowcat team, mountain rescue and a dive team.

“Search and rescue is vast,” Melvin said, “It’s not just going out in the woods with bright orange vests and walking through and finding somebody.”

When someone goes missing, SAR has to start piecing together where the person went using cell phone tower pings and contacting dispatch for 911 calls matching the description of those who’ve gone missing.

“We can’t just send 30 volunteers in all directions of Roseburg in a county that’s over 5,000 square miles in the hopes that we come across them,” Melvin said.

Once Melvin starts to get pieces of information indicating the area where the person might be, he’ll send volunteers out.

Without volunteers, Melvin said officers would be pulled off patrol to assist with searches and he said there would be a lot of tasks that wouldn’t get done.

″(Volunteers are) just a really big part of the sheriff’s office and law enforcement that most people don’t see,” Melvin said, “They give thousands and thousands of hours a year, training, running missions.”

When Fugate is teaching new volunteers, he said he likes to tell them there’s nothing stronger than the hearts of volunteers, who dedicate hours each week with no compensation.

“The only regret I have with search and rescue is I didn’t start it 30 years ago,” Fugate said.

As a teacher, Fugate said he enjoys the moment navigation concepts click in volunteer’s minds.

“I love to see the lights come on when they finally figure out how to use a map and compass,” he said.

He said he enjoys the camaraderie he shares with his fellow volunteers more than anything else.

“I’ve thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed this,” he said.

Melvin described the type of civic-mindedness his volunteers have.

“They do it because if not them, then who?” Melvin said, “That’s what a lot of them say.”

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Information from: The News-Review, http://www.nrtoday.com

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