Wednesday, April 15, 2009

County will pay avalanche rescue costs

Payment is for recent efforts taken on by Sun Valley Heli Ski

Express Staff Writer

Blaine County will pay expenses incurred by Sun Valley Heli Ski when it helped out during two recent avalanche rescue efforts in the snowy mountains northwest of Ketchum.

The decision, made by county commissioners during a meeting Tuesday, means the county will reimburse the private company to the tune of $16,200 for the flight time involved in the March 6 and April 5 incidents. Ketchum backcountry skier Stella Keane, 53, and Richfield snowmobiler Shannon Erwin, 38, were killed in the two separate slides.

The avalanche that claimed Keane was triggered off a partially forested mountainside on the west shoulder of Gladiator Peak in the Boulder Mountains. To the southwest, Erwin was killed in a slide triggered in the Norton Peak area of the Smoky Mountains, in the Baker Creek drainage.

Both avalanches involved steep, rocky terrain prone to sliding. Following the first incident, Sun Valley Heli-Ski pilot Lon Stickney also flew injured skier Jan Koubek of Sun Valley off the mountain.

It wasn't the first time the county has reimbursed Sun Valley Heli Ski for search and rescue efforts involved in an avalanche accident. Several years ago, a helicopter from the locally based company extracted a backcountry skier injured in a slide off Titus Ridge near Galena Summit.

County officials hope that by reimbursing Sun Valley Heli Ski, they'll continue to be able to turn to the company's vast flying experience in the local mountains.

Sun Valley Heli Ski is the most capable resource that local emergency officials can turn to for backcountry accidents, said Ketchum Fire Chief Mike Elle. Elle was involved in both recent avalanche rescue efforts.


"They spend all their time back there," he told the Blaine County Commission during its Tuesday meeting.

Though other helicopters are available for rescue efforts—including one from the St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center—Sun Valley Heli Ski is better suited to flying into the remote and often dangerous landing sites, Elle said. Recalling the Titus Ridge avalanche, he said it likely would not have worked to try to haul the injured skier off the mountain in a sled.

"He probably would not have survived the night," he said.

The discussion led county officials to ask whether a new policy is needed to address expensive payments for remote backcountry rescue efforts. As things stand now, the Blaine County Ambulance District cannot charge a victim's health insurance company for the expense incurred by Sun Valley Heli Ski because it is not considered a medical provider.

Commissioners discussed but did not act on a proposal to include Sun Valley Heli Ski on the ambulance district's fee schedule for medical transport services. They also discussed having the county contract with the company for search and rescue expenses when a victim is not transported.

The commissioners also discussed the possibility of turning to the injured survivors of these kinds of accidents to seek payment. Backcountry skiers and snowmobilers and other outdoorspeople intentionally put themselves in dangerous situations, Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen said.

"You've upped the risk," he said.

Jason Kauffman:

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