ST. GEORGE – Unlike the previous two years, when search and rescue calls had skyrocketed in Washington County, 2022 wasn’t as busy.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue team responded to 119 sorties and amassed 8,000 man-hours between rescue calls and training, Sgt. Darrell Cashin told the Washington County Commission during its Jan. 17 meeting.
“I hope this year isn’t another busy year,” Cashin said, expressing hope the 2023 numbers stay low.
Cashin has overseen search and rescue operations in the county for the past decade and recalled that around 100 assignments over the years were considered “busy”.
While search and rescue numbers have steadily increased from year to year, the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021 brought with them record-breaking numbers. In the 2020s, there were 130 calls in 2019, with 2020 rising to over 170 calls and ending 2021 with around 150 calls.
The spike in incidents during the pandemic years has been attributed to crowds of out-of-state visitors wanting to participate in outdoor recreation that was on lockdown in their home states but remained open in Utah.
During this time, Cashin began tracking how many incidents the search and rescue team responded to affected individuals who lived outside of the county. So far it’s been around 60%, he told the Commission,
“That seems to be stable from year to year,” Cashin said.
As part of Cashin’s monthly report to the commission, he detailed recent search and rescue incidents, some of which have been “very, very tough” on members of the search and rescue team, himself and others.
The last call of the year sent the county’s search and rescue team to Colorado City on Dec. 20 to recover the body of a man who fell through the ice and drowned while trying to rescue the family dog.
The first call of the new year came on January 1, involving stranded motorists whose vehicle got stuck in snow on a backcountry road. While that can be routine for the search and rescue team in the winter, the next mission wasn’t.
Search and rescue volunteers responded to the report of a plane crash in the New Harmony area and participated in recovering the pilot’s body, Cashin said.
“They can’t all be happy endings,” Cashin said, speaking to St George News following his commission report.
Additional calls between Jan. 7 and 14 involved the recovery of stray and injured hikers at various locations in the county and utility vehicle drivers at Toquerville Falls who were stranded due to rising water levels.
While some recent calls haven’t had the best outcome, a call last year that the county’s search and rescue team responded to went flawlessly and earned the praise of a neighboring county’s search and rescue officials.
On September 19, 2022, the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office contacted Washington County for help with a 60-year-old hiker in the Cedar Pockets area of the Virgin River Gorge. The man was stranded due to the rising river water. The hiker had crossed the river earlier that day only to climb between 1,500 and 2,000 cubic feet. He had no food or shelter available and another storm was on the horizon.
Washington County Search and Rescue’s speedy water rescue team reached the stranded hiker much earlier than Mohave County could have done and got the man back across the river without incident. When the result was reported to Mohave County, they thanked Cashin and his team for a job well done.
“It was nice to hear from my co-workers in Mohave County, ‘Are you kidding me? You guys rock!’” Cashin said with a smile. “That’s the pinnacle — having a neighboring or friendly (search and rescue) team say, ‘You guys really know what you’re doing and you saved us.'”
Referring next to the volunteer search and rescue workers, he said: “You want to hear the ‘thank you’. They don’t care about anything else.”
As for why the search and search calls are down compared to the two years prior, Cashin said it’s likely a mix of far fewer visits and people actually preparing for an outdoor outing.
It is common for search and rescue volunteers to respond to instances where people did not adequately prepare and had to call for help. This has prompted Cashin to repeatedly advise the public to make sure they have enough water, dress appropriately for the weather and let someone know where they are going before setting out.
In addition to a lower volume of calls, the county’s search and rescue team saw an increase in volunteers and four new deputy sheriffs assigned to the team. This has helped spread out the work and bought Cashin something he hasn’t had much of in at least nine years: free time.
“It’s been a burden on me,” he said, adding that he’s been on duty with the search and rescue team practically 24/7 since he was assigned. “Now we are in rotation. Each of us (deputies) needs a week.”
The new MPs were added in late 2021 to patrol the county’s backcountry while attending to law enforcement needs with the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. They were also added to the search and rescue list and “worked great,” Cashin said.
A compensation scheme for volunteer search and rescue workers was also approved by the county commission as part of its 2022 budget. This, along with the addition of the new volunteers and stand-ins, has helped lessen the burnout that Cashin said his people were beginning to experience in 2021.
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