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.

January 23, 2012

Being a Backer -- A Search Near Wapatki

View of the San Francisco Peaks from Wapatki National Monument
The first call-out happened not long after I'd gone to bed. It was sleeting, and the roads were icy. Earlier that evening, I'd been reading online about lots of accidents in the area, and I knew my car was not adequate for driving in those conditions. So I decided to stay home. That's never an easy decision for me.

At 5:45 the next morning, another call-out came through for a second operational period. The missing person hadn't been located during the hasty search overnight. Knowing I really didn't want to miss another call, my boyfriend kindly offered to drive me to the SAR building in his truck. Good thing, because the roads were still very icy.

As I was getting ready for this winter weather mission, my phone rang again. It was our K9 handler, Cindy, asking if I'd be her backer as I've done a number of times now. I didn't hesitate. I really enjoy working with Cindy and her dogs. We'd meet at the SAR building and head out to the search area as quickly as possible--before the rest of the team--to get a head start, to let the dogs search before there were others in the area.

When I'm backing the K9 team, I'm responsible for navigation and radio communication, while I help Cindy keep an eye on the dogs (she often uses all three of her search dogs at the same time) and doing my own searching. I also help Cindy decide the best way to search our assigned area. Sometimes, the Incident Commander asks us what we think the best area and search strategy would be, so we put our heads together and hash out the ideas, taking into account wind direction (related to the dogs' ability to scent a subject), terrain, and what we know about the missing person's actions and the point last seen (PLS).

In this case, we were searching for a missing woodcutter. He'd disappeared around 4:30pm the day before, walking away from his two companions during very cold and windy conditions. It had gotten even colder with precipitation overnight. The other two men, who hadn't seen their friend's direction of travel when he wandered away, stayed in the area for a while, searching, then left and called for assistance.

So we knew basically where to begin--the general area along a Forest Service road on BLM land, just outside of Wapatki National Monument--but not a specific point. No footprints had been found by trackers during the hasty search overnight, so still no direction of travel had been determined. The area is mostly cinder-covered with lots of pinon pine and juniper (much more than what's shown in the photo above). Cindy and I noted that our own footprints were very clear in the cinders, so we knew that the subject's would be as well.

Cindy tested the wind direction with her little bottle of baby powder. She does this frequently as we search with the dogs, since wind direction can change quickly. We also discussed where to search and what to use as boundaries in this mostly very open area. (We noted power lines both on the map and in the field, along with two-track roads we could use. We would also use random GPS coordinates to create the area for our grid search.) At this point, given what we knew, we agreed that walking tight grids would be best ... in case the subject were unresponsive (ie. due to hypothermia or worse).

As we were getting our packs together and putting the harnesses with GPSes on the dogs, word came in over the radio that the missing subject had JUST called a family member on his cell phone, saying he was very cold and trying to walk towards Wapatki Road. He was alive! Unfortunately, the phone call was dropped and no further contact had been made. Cell service was very sketchy out there, and I had none at all.

Wapatki Road surrounds the area in a big loop. So the subject could have been walking in any direction towards this "catch feature." And we still had no idea where he was, so his distance from the road could potentially have been a very long way. But now that we knew he was alive AND moving, Cindy and I agreed to make our grid passes with the dogs much wider.

Based on wind direction and given the area the DPS helicopter had been flying over as we'd been en route and getting ready, we decided on the area we'd search. We got moving at a pretty good clip, the dogs running and weaving, working excitedly. Cindy and I called and whistled for the subject as we watched the dogs for any sign they were working scent.

I glanced at my GPS now and then, to make sure we were making fairly parallel grids, letting Cindy know if she should angle a bit more to the left or right. I stayed a bit behind her and several paces to her side, keeping downwind of the dogs so my scent wouldn't interfere. I also let Cindy know when it was time to turn around for the next pass.

After about two hours of searching in long, wide grids and yelling and whistling, I called in to base. We'd not heard any radio traffic for a long while. Had any additional contact been made with the subject? Were the other searchers in the area yet?

As a matter of fact, the reply was: "The subject has been located. You can return to base."

It was a lengthy walk from our current location back to our vehicle, and I now noticed how tiring walking on cinders was. (I don't notice fatigue as much when I'm actually searching.) The dogs, though, were still full of energy and still searching for human scent on the way back. To them, it's all a fun game.

When we met back up with IC, we learned that the subject had been found along a Forest Service road (not paved Wapatki Road) a good distance away from the area we'd been searching and in a direction the dogs could not have detected his scent on the wind. Still, we felt we'd done the best we could and made a good strategy decision based on what we'd known--which wasn't much--when we'd begun searching. We were glad we'd had a chance to work together again.


Peg Brantley said...

I'm in awe of your commitment and resolve to come to a resolution . . . hoping always for a postive one.

Between your dedication, and the training (and sport) of your dogs, you are all to be commended.

My best wishes to all of you, two-legged and four, for successful recoveries and searches in 2012.

Frank and Sue said...

Thanks Deb,
Another fascinating article, keep up the great work!