About Coconino County

About Coconino County

Encompassing 18,661 square miles, Coconino County, Arizona, is the second largest county in the U.S. but one of the least populated. Our county includes Grand Canyon National Park, the Navajo, Havasupai, Hualapai and Hopi Indian Reservations, and the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the world. Elevations range from 2,000 feet above sea level along the Colorado River to 12,633 feet at the summit of Mt. Humphreys in Flagstaff.

March 4, 2009

A Wood-Cutting Outing Gone Bad

I don't think I'll ever be completely comfortable around helicopters. And maybe that's not a bad thing, really. I mean, you don't want to take those spinning blades lightly. At the same time, though, it sure is fun to ride in 'em!

And I got my second chance last night, on our first call-out in about a month. My pager went off at 4pm, just as I was getting ready for Jazzercise class. So I quickly changed from spandex tights, a cotton t-shirt and aerobic sneakers into long johns, fleece, coated nylon and hiking boots. (Some of which I did at a rather long red light.)

This mission involved an injured man whose exact location was not yet known. "Somewhere south of Williams" was all we heard as we loaded gear--technical, medical, general and personal--into the SAR vehicles and ATVs onto a trailer.

We had a very good turnout for this mission, which called for technical team members as well as general SAR. Sometimes--or perhaps I should say, often--you just don't know what a mission will turn into and what Search & Rescue volunteers will be called upon to do.

SAR missions are dynamic situations, to say the least. You think you're heading into a particular scenario, then things quickly change, sometimes drastically. We're always listening to radio traffic on our way to a staging area, and we often hear of changes as we drive. And as the situation changes and develops, so too must plans for carrying out the mission.

Yesterday, on our way to Williams, where we'd meet deputies and SAR coordinators at the courthouse for a briefing, information was sketchy. It sounded like the injured man must have made a cellphone call, but he wasn't able, for some reason, to give his exact location. Apparently, he'd fallen off a ledge. We knew there were canyons in the area, where he often went to cut wood, but the man's vehicle had yet to be located and there are numerous dirt roads and two-tracks around, many of which aren't on any map.

As we waited for our briefing, deputies were speaking by cellphone with a member of the injured man's family, who was out looking for his vehicle, but even she was having difficulty relaying her exact location. Two helicopters, one DPS and the other from a contiguous county, were in the air, but they had spotted neither the victim, the victim's vehicle nor the family member's vehicle by the time we received our assignments and headed out to do our thing.

At that time, I was assigned to an ATV team. Our goal was to find the family member and then the victim's vehicle. From there, we would hopefully be able to track him.

As the four of us on that field team drove to our assigned area, I mentally went over ATV driving, which I haven't done once since my training back in October, 2007, the first and only time I'd ever ridden a quad. I've been assigned to do so since then, but, each time, things changed and I was reassigned, usually to go out on foot or in a vehicle. And this time was no different. Things changed.

Just before getting to the point where we'd unload the ATV's, we heard that the victim's vehicle had been spotted by the DPS helicopter, in the trees just a short distance from the road we were on. And, soon thereafter, they saw the injured man in a nearby canyon. He'd managed to start a fire, which was a good sign.

So things happened quickly from there. Since the subject was on the other side of the canyon, at the bottom of which was a swiftly flowing creek, swollen with snowmelt, tech team members and rescue gear were shuttled by helicopter to the opposite rim. Meanwhile, I helped with the roadblock (so the helo could use the road as a landing zone) and talked to the man's worried family, who'd immediately driven to our new staging area. I felt good about the situation at that point and tried to make the family feel better, too. I was relieved to see them smile a bit.

Time went on and a sunny day turned into a clear, starry and chilly night. I was hanging out on the road, chatting with a couple other non-tech members and assuming I would stay put there until the man was carried out, when suddenly I heard our field leader say over the radio, "Send Deb." That's always kind of exciting, I must say.

Next thing ya know, I'm sitting next to the helicopter pilot, looking at all those lights and gauges and gadgets and watching the ground fall away through the glass near my feet. Two more non-tech members were also in the chopper. This was to be a difficult carry-out, and more muscle was needed.

Speaking of which, I often don't feel I'm a great help on litter evacuations, though I try my darndest to pull my weight. And now that I've assisted with several of them, I do think I've become more valuable to the team. This time, though, we had to actually carry the subject in the litter, because it was too steep and rugged to use the wheel. The weight combined with the crummy footing and dense brush really challenged me, and, at one point, I got stuck on a bush that wouldn't give and nearly fell on the poor man. Luckily, a teammate quickly responded when I started to lose my balance and said, "Somebody push me into the bushes!" So I landed in the brush instead of on the patient, which I'm sure he appreciated.

Anyhow, long story short, with the help of some rope and a lot of muscle, sweat and satisfying teamwork, we got our subject back up to the landing zone, where he was whisked off to an ambulance on the other side of the canyon. Two and three at a time, SAR members, a deputy and an EMT were then shuttled back to the road, saving us a rather long and difficult hike out.

At 2:30am, my sweat dry and muscles sore, with bits and pieces of bushes tangled in my hair, I arrived home, shoved my dog to the middle of the bed where she belongs and crawled in.

Read the news story about this mission here.

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