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For the week of Feb. 16 through Feb. 22, 2000

In the field with Blaine County Search & Rescue

Redefining the ancient art of tracking


By KEVIN WISER
Express Staff Writer

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Members of the Blaine County Search and Rescue tracking team crouched low to the ground, close to a "sign," searching for minute impressions in the soil, perhaps invisible to the untrained eye.

"Bent blades of grass, a broken branch, discoloration of the ground, a scuff mark on a rock, these are the subtleties of the sign that go beyond finding an actual indentation of a foot print and eventually add up to finding the person," tracker R. J. Scheu said.

During a training session held Saturday on the Picabo Desert Road near the southern border of the county, a tracking team made up of Scheu, Mark Sheehan and Suzi Zweifel worked in an arrowhead formation in search of a track laid down earlier by team leader Michael Barto.

Sheehan is the only one of the four who works for the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office. The other three county residents come from the private sector. An Idaho Mountain Express reporter and photographer accompanied them on the training exercise.

The left and right trackers watch for anything moving off to the sides while the point tracker concentrates on fresh signs and direction of travel, Barto explained.

"You’re literally on your hands and knees looking for minute disturbances," Sheehan said peering over the sign. "See the crush here and the scrape on the branch, the loose rock where the mud has pulled away from the sides indicating it’s been stepped on?"

The team searched the sage and grass for the marker placed at the end of Barto’s trail. Low clouds burned off over rocky outcroppings as the sun broke through gaps of blue in the late afternoon sky.

"Light is an important factor in tracking," Barto explained. "You should try to keep the sun between you and your sign to allow the shadows cast by the sign to be more distinct."

Added Sheehan: "When crushed or bruised the grass takes on a different color. If the light is right, you can see the line of tracks from the discoloration of grass."

Scheu described it as following footprints across a yard covered in morning frost.

Barto said the tracking techniques used by the search and rescue team date back centuries ago to a time when man lived off the land and tracking was a way of life.

"We’re reviving Native American ways by bringing back those tracking skills and implementing them into our search and rescue operation," Scheu said.

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Blaine County Search and Rescue (BCSAR) is a group of dedicated volunteers who operate under the direction of the Blaine County Sheriff’s Department.

"We have people from all walks of life--housewives, doctors, architects, teachers and law enforcement," Scheu said. "When a call comes in squad members drop everything, close their businesses and go to the rescue."

The unit got its start about 25 years ago as a jeep patrol.

Now, in addition to tracking, members of the team are trained in first aid, swift water rescue, difficult high angle rope rescue, helicopter protocol and avalanche rescue.

Blaine County is over 2,600 square miles of varied terrain with elevations ranging from approximately 4,200 to 12,000 feet. Mountains, waterways, forests and high desert present an unending challenge, winter and summer, for the BCSAR team.

Every year, the team responds to a wide range of emergencies from lost hikers and rope rescues to digging out snowmobiles at Baker Creek.

Scheu said the team may conduct up to 30 or 40 rescue operations a year.

According to the BCSAR Web site, the team maintained its rating as one of the top search and rescue units in the nation with 15 successful missions last year, which included searches for a lost three-year- old-girl, six mountain bikers, four hikers, four hunters, one motorcycle rider, one snowmobiler, one fisherman, two four-wheel drivers and one mountain climber.

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According to Scheu, even the most experienced outdoorsman can get lost.

"It usually starts out as a simple backcountry outing, a short hike, a mountain bike ride or a walk in the woods," Scheu said. "But one trail leads to another and people can become disoriented."

Scheu commented that on a number of searches family members of lost individuals have said, "I don’t care what it takes—one, two or five million dollars—please get my little girl, son, mom or dad back safe."

The only problem, Scheu said, is that equipment that expedites search and rescue operations is largely their own, and not supplied by the Sheriff’s office or the county.

With a county budget of $7,800 a year, BCSAR relies primarily on contributions for the bulk of its operational costs.

Scheu said that since search and rescue members are required to perform tasks that often include risking their own lives to save others, the team is for the first time asking for the community’s help to raise money to purchase much-needed equipment.

A major piece of equipment the team hopes to purchase through a fund-raiser is infrared thermal imaging scopes. According to Scheu, the scopes would enable the team to locate lost individuals by honing in on their body heat in any type of terrain and weather conditions.

"In an emergency situation, time is of the essence," Scheu said. "Having these scopes could save minutes, hours and lives during a search and rescue operation."


Blaine County Search and Rescue’s goal is to raise approximately $350,000 this year to purchase the following equipment:

  • A four-wheel drive, specially equipped command-post vehicle.

  • A truck customized for search and rescue operations.

  • Two thermal imaging scopes.

  • Fifty pagers.

  • Twenty radios with ear mikes.

  • Five dirt bikes.

  • Five snowmobiles.

  • Six all-terrain vehicles.

  • Three trailers.

  • One water rescue hovercraft.

  • Global Position Systems.

  • Forty avalanche packs with probes and transceivers.

  • High-angle (rock climbing) rescue equipment.

  • 3 electronic transceiver locators.

Tax deductible donations to the BCSAR fund can be made at any First Bank of Idaho branch.

 

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