Fresno Search in the Sierra National Forest

By John Banuelos

There were four Sierra searches caused by a single snowstorm. The October 22nd snowstorm had set up a cascade of missing hunters and hikers in the Sierras. CoCoSAR had already responded to the Bear Valley call, and now we were off to the Sierra National Forest near Fresno.  A search for Matthew Hanson had been initiated by Fresno SAR on October 28th. He was late from a backpacking trip that started on October 16th, with a projected return of October 25th. CoCoSAR had three members to send: Jeremiah Kost, Andy Csepely and me. For Jeremiah and me, this was our second Type I search within a week.

As with any Type I deployment, you come “loaded for bear.” Each team member came with gear suitable for sub-zero temperatures and any major change in weather patterns.  It had been made clear by Fresno SAR that every responding team would be placed in the field with an expectation of handling a full 72-hour tour.  Weather looked mild, but changes were coming. Plus the altitudes were going to drive sub-freezing temperature in unprotected snow-covered terrains.  Included in our stash were night vision gear, FLIR, an Iridium phone and SPOTS. At 1845 hours on October 28th, we were off and ready for the five-plus-hour drive to CP.

Meanwhile, a Hasty callout was made at 1900 hours to a search for a missing 14 year-old. As a rule, all in-county searches take priority over out-of-county searches. So though we were en route, timing was perfect because we were nearing Morgan Territory Road where the search was to take place. By 2100 hours, the subject was found and the three of us continued on to the Fresno search. We rolled in at 0400 hours, got a few hours of sleep and rose ready to deploy at 0800 hours on October 29th.

Fresno SAR had a detailed itinerary left by the subject. He had also indicated possible diversions within his plans. Search teams were to be assigned to high probability locations where he might hunker down and to passes where he might try to cross over on the White Mountain Divide. 

CoCoSAR was given several possible passes to search along with Bighorn, Ambition and Valor lake, between 10,000- to 12,000-foot elevation. We were to be inserted by Blackhawk helicopter with two other teams made up of BAMRU and Marin SAR.

The helicopter insertion went as expected. We had to prepare for blade wash and noise and to follow crew instructions precisely. With no ability to hear any instructions from the crew, hand signals had to be heeded. Every member of the crew is focused on very precise tasks and there is little tolerance for anyone’s inability to follow directions.

Our helicopter did initial passes over a wide area in a search pattern before prepping for the insertion of the search teams. This allowed us to assess the terrain. As expected it was snow-covered, with little forest cover, and filled with masses of broken granite boulders. While it looked like heaven to explore as a hiker, it would be tough to cover as a searcher looking for a lost hiker.

Never assume that the pilots are fully informed about the assignment and insertion point of the teams in the helicopter. Fortunately, Jeremiah had kept track of our position on his GPS and when he told me that the pilots were about to drop us at a location too far away from everyone’s primary search assignment, I was able to give the pilots a better insertion point for all the teams involved. This was right at Ambition Lake. It was now 1200 hours.

We had a 1 KM by 3 KM search area that went from 10600 ft up to 12000 ft of elevation. We were already at 11,000-plus ft. of elevation. The entire area was full of granite boulders covered with snow. Areas of our assignment required steep ascents. They were not technical, but caution was needed. There was a danger of twisting an ankle or a knee if the snow gave way into an open space between boulders. Working in unstable footing with a heavy pack (needed in these conditions) creates a constant stress on the body’s core muscle groups. Add the altitude, and bonking rises to a possibility far faster than one would expect.

At 1530 hours, the subject had been found after new information on his itinerary had been given to the search manager. A helicopter was able to sight and retrieve the subject at Cathedral Lake, which was three kms south of our search assignment.

While we were near our original extraction point, it was important to continue to listen to the radio for helicopter operations updates. Two issues came up. One was that the helicopters needed fueling, which could have meant a night out, since they would not fly at night. The other was a discussion on a different extraction point for teams in the area, which could have meant a need to move fast to prevent a night out.

Andy’s HAM skills were called on again and again. He kept in touch with other teams using a HAM repeater in the area or on Clemars 1 using an extended antenna. Communication with CP was done primarilyy with Eagle (other aircrafts in the air) relays of information from teams in the field to CP.  Monitoring all traffic in this environment was critical, and Andy did it well. We were able to convince CP to use the original extraction point.

Fresno SAR had an on-site food service truck and a pasta dinner and dessert was provided for all the teams. This same food service had provided breakfast and packed lunches for the teams. We drove off the mountain with full stomachs to make the five-plus-hour drive back to OES.

A Perfect Storm: A Test of Training, Gear, Teamwork, Fitness, and Trust

By Matt Shargel

The first winter storm of the year in the Sierras always seems to catch folks in the backcountry off guard. This year, the Mountain Rescue Group responded to two Type 1 searches in the aftermath of the year’s first snowfall and freezing temperatures. Below is a summary of our efforts to find and rescue a missing man and his nephew who got lost while spending the day hiking and hunting in the backcountry near Ebbetts Pass.

We arrived at Bear Valley late Tuesday evening, got what sleep we could, and were ready for an 0800 briefing on Wednesday at the fire station. The storm had been blowing all night long and left nearly a foot of cold fresh snow on the ground. We drove to the field CP at the Hermit Valley trail head and had to chain up the MRG truck for the first time that I can remember.

After a briefing, we headed out on the first search assignment of the day as a team of five (John Banuelos, Jeremiah Kost, Larry Fong, Joe Keyser and I). In county, we are drilled to have our gear prepped and ready to go when an assignment is given, and we try as much as possible to maintain this habit on T-1 searches as well; our readiness on T-1 searches often results in the first and highest POD assignments heading our way.

We hiked and snow-shoed about two miles down a drainage to the start of our search area, which was focused on a major clue found the day before: a smoldering campfire and emergency blanket. The storm was beginning to pass, but the air was still very cold and significant snow was still falling.

As we were dividing up the search area, we heard a radio call that a team farther down the drainage had found fresh tracks. A team of two from Calaveras was continuing an assignment from the day before, having spent a night in the field. It had snowed about a foot overnight and the tracks they found were on top of this, but covered by about half an inch of fresh snow.

Our distance down the drainage was making radio comms to CP sketchy at best, but we could clearly hear and respond to the Calaveras team. We were faced with a field decision without clear feedback or direction from the CP. Our in-county experience and our practice during the MRA Wilderness Ops certification all kicked into high gear.

How would we get information from the Calaveras team back to the CP? How could we physically support this team and at the same time, work on our own search area? If we split up, what backcountry and emergency gear were we carrying, and could we maintain our commitment to providing care in the field to a downed subject while still having gear for our own safety? And as team lead, if we were to split up, did I trust in the judgment, ability, and training of the new smaller teams?
As I went through this checklist, first in my own mind and then with everyone on the team, every “no-go” concern I had was covered and our response decision was made.

Jeremiah and I double-timed it down the drainage trying to pick up the trail to potentially cut off the subject if he was headed back upstream. Banuelos, Keyser, and Fong continued on from the fire pit clue. The plan was sound, but as those with experience know, we must adapt to what we find and we were sure in for much more action that day!

Just as Jeremiah and I located another unburned campfire attempt along the tracks, the Calaveras team caught up with the adult subject. Jeremiah and I were about 10 minutes behind. Their radio traffic could not be heard by any other team due to the distance. When we caught up with the Calaveras team and the subject a few minutes later, we took over coms and IC as the two Calaveras members tended to the subject. We provided dry clothes, warm soup and an emergency blanket.
The subject reported leaving the deceased youth subject up the drainage near the first campsite.

We were now faced with the challenge of communicating this sensitive information back to the CP. Our first step was to get teams heading in the direction of the youth. I directed our second group (John, Larry, Joe) to change the radios to tac4, and then used our internal radio codes to communicate the significance of the situation and the location for follow up. At the same time, due to the critical nature of the situation, I sent a priority HELP message through the SPOT device.

After several failed attempts to contact CP via satellite phone to satellite phone connection, I called Rick Kovar at OES, then I radio relayed via the main (CLEMARS) frequency asking CP to call Kovar directly from their own satellite phone. Kovar passed the sensitive intel on to CP along with our location.

CP dispatched a CHP helicopter based on these directions and promptly flew over us in the field where we were with the first subject. Via radio to the helicopter, we were able to direct it to our exact location in the forest.
Now our training on landing zones and helo operations was kicking in. What FOD or other hazards were in the area? Were comms clear between us and the helo? And how far could we move the subject in his current condition?
The helicopter attempted a landing next to where we were, but the terrain was prohibitive, a large, snow-covered boulder on a slope by a creek. The helo then located a secondary location about a 10-minute hike downstream in a small gap in the forest. We assisted the subject to this location and loaded him while the helo hovered a few inches over the uneven ground.

Again, in-county training and experience kicked in as we approached the helicopter. From where did the pilot want us to approach? And foremost in my mind was how the uneven terrain would change the distance between our heads and the rotors. We crawled through the snow and intensely blowing rotor wash!

After the helo cleared the area, we grabbed our gear and the subject’s gear and high-tailed it back up the drainage while trying to coordinate responses of other teams to the first campfire location. The subject had given us very clear information about the youth's specific location and the Calaveras team knew just where to head.

As we met up with our first team of three that was investigating tracks leading up the side of the drainage, Jeremiah joined the two Calaveras members following tracks up the side of the drainage in another direction. About an hour later, this team located the deceased youth near another fire pit along the path of the tracks.

At this point, it was really getting dark, we were all getting tired and hungry, the multiple adrenalin rushes of the day had worn off, and I, for one, was very disappointed and saddened that we were unable to find the boy in time to save his life. We were facing a long and cold hike out of the backcountry through heavy snow along terrain that had already proved disorienting to one experienced team from another county.

We built a large warming fire at the location of the subject’s first camp, melted snow for water, ate what food we could manage, and gathered other teams to this location as an impromptu field staging and rally point. When relieved by another team (BAMRU), Jeremiah and the Calaveras searchers came down the side of the drainage and joined us, deputies from the local Sheriff’s Office and searchers from Marin at the campfire.

After this much-needed rest and mental refocusing and time to brief the deputy and coroner, we hiked back up to the main CP, passing a fresh recovery team coming down the “trail.” We checked in around 11 p.m., found a place to sleep in Bear Valley, then drove back to the OES Wednesday morning.

Key lessons
• Searcher fitness it critical – the first part of the day was roughly equivalent to the Diablo endurance hike (DEH). The hike out was like getting to the bottom of the DEH and turning around for a second lap. Jeremiah did the biggest day with his extra assignment up the mountain to the second find. We must be ready to respond at all times!

• Comms was a major challenge due to the distances involved, as well as the sensitivity of some information. We adapted use of the SPOT, satellite phone and our radios to work around these difficulties. The team members from BAMRU should be commended for their critical recognition of the poor radio conditions and their endurance as an impromptu and in-the-field radio relay.

• Be ready for the unexpected night out. We were one cloud-bank and one less helicopter away from having to care for a hypothermic subject throughout the night and perhaps into a second full day. We had ways to heat food, build fire, make good winter shelter, continue medical care, and maintain communication lines despite tough terrain and winter weather. Those with enough experience know that the gear we carry in county, as well as out of county, is there to serve a real-world, tested and critical role. Very little of our gear came back unused. And we were all very thankful to be in a position to provide it in a time of dire need.

Friday, March 3rd. Missing Man in Alamo
A Hasty Squad callout was made to look for a missing 40-year-old male who had been at home with his two-yearold child. When his wife returned home from running errands, the man was no longer there. He was found deceased shortly after the call went out. An investigation is under way.

Friday, February 17th. Missing Woman in Concord
An at-risk female went missing from a group home. Within an hour of the call going out to the Hasty Squad, it was cancelled when the woman was found safe.

Friday, February 17th. Missing Woman in Walnut Creek
A 59-year-old female went missing from her home Thursday, and remained missing all day Friday. She had her cell phone with her, but was not responding to calls. Cell phone pings helped identify various locations to search. Twentyfour Hasty Squad members responded to a command post in Walnut Creek. Two field teams were dispatched to conduct driving assignments, while the search manager hastily put together an initial response plan from the back of a pickup truck. Just as the Comm Van arrived on site, the call came that the woman had been found safe.

Friday, February 10. Missing Man in Crockett
On a day set aside for a full-team training, CoCo SAR instead spent the day searching for a 66-year-old male who had been missing for two weeks. The man, thought to be despondent, had left his home January 26 th and had not been seen since. In addition to Sheriff’s deputies and volunteers, friends and family had already canvassed the area without locating the subject. The Hasty Squad met Friday night to organize, review maps, and write up detailed plans for a final, thorough search.

The command post was on site early Saturday morning, ready to send out field teams as soon as the first of 125 searchers arrived for the day. Two divisions were used in this search—one to manage the north side of San Pablo Avenue, and the other to manage the south side. Field teams scoured hillsides, neighborhoods, train tracks and the water’s edge. The subject was found deceased just as the search was about to conclude. Team members helped extricate the body and perform the carryout for the Coroner.

2011 Callouts

Here is a breakdown of the 2011 callouts showing the type and location of incidents where CoCo SAR was asked to assist:

In-County Callouts
• 7 Hasty-Only Callouts
• 4 Metal Detectors
• 3 Evidence Searches
• 2 Marijuana Extractions (Type I and full team)
• 1 Full Team – Knightsen
• 1 Full Team and Type II - Walnut Creek/Canal
Out-of-County Callouts
• 3 Type I Callouts
• 9 Type II Callouts
• 6 Full Team Callouts
Mutual Aid Callouts
• Amador County
• Lake County (2)
• Marin County (2)
• Mendocino/Trinity (2)
• San Mateo County (3)
• Solano County (2)
• Sonoma County (6)
• The Federal GGNRA

Mission Summary: Richmond

Wednesday, December 21. Evidence Search in Richmond
A metal detector callout was made to assist the Richmond Police Department with an evidence search following an officer-involved shooting. Seven team members responded to the callout. The search area included a parking lot, grassy  areas between buildings, and a hotel lobby. No evidence was found.

Mission Summary: Solano County

The SAR team was called at midnight on Wednesday, December 7to aid Solano County with the second operational period search effort for a missing 20-year-old woman with mental disabilities. Twelve team members responded to OES for a pre-dawn departure. Once on site, members were assigned to canine, tracking, and ground-pounder field teams, as well as overhead responsibilities in the command post. A second callout was issued mid-morning, with 18 additional team members responding. Shortly afterward the missing subject was spotted by local residents when she exited a barn where she had taken refuge overnight. She was checked out by medical personnel and deemed to be in good health

Evidence Search in El Sobrante

SAR members were requested to assist Sheriff’s Office Investigators today, to locate evidence stolen jewelry and a gun taken during a home invasion in the El Sobrante area. While the suspect was apprehended after a short chase, no evidence was found in his possession. Twenty-two SAR members, including the Metal Detector Resource, scoured a ravine and creek where there was thought to be a high probability of locating the missing items. At the request of investigators, the team performed a one-mile street search from the home to the point of capture. The SO investigators were impressed  and thanked CoCo SAR for its commitment to a thorough search