Think Out Loud

Calls for search and rescue in Oregon on the rise

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
June 24, 2021 4:48 p.m. Updated: June 24, 2021 8:50 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, June 24

The pandemic prompted a lot of people to get outside and do things they hadn’t done before. But this means more inexperienced hikers and outdoor enthusiasts are roaming unfamiliar Oregon terrain. And that’s led to an increase in calls for search and rescue. Scott Lucas is the state of Oregon’s search and rescue coordinator. Brent Neely is the captain of Wallowa County Search and Rescue. They join us with details on those rescue situations and what to keep in mind before heading out.


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Geoff Norcross: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Geoff Norcross. It’s kind of amazing how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected everything. More people have been venturing out into the Oregon wilderness over the past year. And that has led to an increase in search and rescue missions, especially in rural counties. In Wallowa County, there were two search and rescue missions in all of the year 2017. Last year there were 40. We’re going to talk about what this has meant for the agencies that answer those calls. Scott Lucas is the search and rescue coordinator for the state of Oregon. Scott, good to have you.

Scott Lucas: Thanks for having me today, appreciate it.

Geoff Norcross: And Brent Neely is the captain of Wallowa County Search and Rescue. Brent Neely, good to have you as well.

Brent Neely: Hi, thanks for having me as well.

Geoff Norcross: Scott, you’re first. Can you make that connection for me? Why is the pandemic to blame for the uptick in search and rescue calls?

Scott Lucas: That’s a good question. I think when the pandemic started we thought that search and rescue would fall off. 2019 was really a busy year for us. And I thought that with everybody home, 2020 would be a little slower.

Geoff Norcross: Yeah, we were literally told to stay home, weren’t we?

Scott Lucas: Yeah, we were and I think for a few months they did even though we still had missions. But then it just took right off. I think that happened when everybody was forced to be home, and I think maybe they can only watch so much TV or [watch] so many videos or so much Netflix. Then I think they got on the computer and started saying well, what’s out there? And they started on the computer and looked for: I can go hike, I can go climb this, or I can do this. A lot of first timers, I think it’s good. You want to explore Oregon but I think it seemed easier than it was when you’re at home doing something, I think that’s a natural cause of things. So the next thing you know, counties like Brent’s, they’re having historic numbers for search and rescues. All the rural counties. And the joke was that the counties that usually see an uptick, like in hunting season or something like that, said to me, “Scott, I have more people here now than I’ve ever had at any time of the year, and now this is April, May.” So I think the pandemic just forced it, they couldn’t go downtown, they couldn’t go anywhere else. I think they just went out the furthest they could go in Oregon and that’s what they did!

Geoff Norcross: Are there certain types of calls that you saw more than others over the past year? Certain patterns developing?

Scott Lucas: I saw the more extreme calls for more high technical rescues. When you’re resourcing like with helicopters, our rescue teams are like military or professional rescue teams. I saw that in certain counties, I think like in Brent’s county, I think they had four helicopter missions and I doubt they had four helicopter missions in 10 years there, let alone one year. So that’s what I saw was the more extreme resourcing.

Geoff Norcross: Can you describe a specific incident that exemplifies what you’re talking about? What you saw over there, out there, over the past year?

Scott Lucas: Well, I can tell you one where it takes in, I think Brent and I talked about a couple of days ago, but there was one where, it wasn’t so much that we needed a helicopter, but there was a gentleman that went to the furthest point in Oregon, to Half Point, which is above Hells Canyon. He parked his car, the tower rangers saw him get out of his car and head down at Half Point which goes down the Horse Creek and the Snake River. And he was lost for two or three days. And when they were searching his car, they found a book that talked about a beginner’s guide to hiking northeast Oregon. We finally found him on the Snake River. He flagged a boat down, a jet boat because they have the rafts and jet boat tours. And then the Sheriff met him at a landing. He was one that I think just over-thought the process and thought anybody can go out and do this and I will go out and do what I can do and then he got lost for three days and I think he rethought his process after that.

Geoff Norcross: What can you say about your ability to handle all those calls from a resource standpoint? From a time standpoint?

Scott Lucas: Well the pandemic made it difficult because everybody had protocols. Even the Life Flight, U.S. Coast Guard, the Oregon Army National Guard who we use for extreme cases like helicopter rescues and things, plus all the SAR teams. I’m sure Brent can talk to it, I’m sure it was a detriment to our resourcing. But we do the best we can with it. We have a very good search and rescue program in Oregon within the 36 counties. And I think that really helped us. We went in pretty strong and I think we were able to adapt and respond to all the calls that we had.

Geoff Norcross: Brent Neely, can you describe the wilderness areas of Wallowa county and how people can get themselves into trouble there?

Brent Neely:: Yeah, that’s definitely a good point to talk about. We have a lot of designated wilderness and it’s a lot different from a walk in the park. They’re very remote areas. There’s no power, there’s no roads, there’s no cell phone signal. As Scott said, we saw a lot of these less experienced people getting out, which is great. But understanding the difference between a designated wilderness and areas where we have some of those more modern conveniences, if something does happen, it could be hours and hours before you could even get a message out that you need help. And the stakes are pretty high when you’re recreating in the backcountry. We saw a big uptick in people that were new, in that they weren’t traveling to the typical vacations and things. So we saw a lot of people choosing to come over here and explore our beautiful corner of Oregon, instead of that.


Geoff Norcross: You mentioned the cell service and how it doesn’t exist in many parts of your county. How reliant are people on cell service when they get into trouble?

Brent Neely: Very. I mean in our modern world, it’s very unusual not to be able to pick up your phone and call for help and get it quickly. Where we live in Wallowa County and a lot of parts of Eastern Oregon, it’s just not a convenience that you can count on. We get a lot of calls from people that come over and tell their spouse or loved ones that they’ll check in every night when they get to camp and they don’t have a signal and they just can’t. So people start worrying about that and it’s something to be very aware of. There’s a lot of good satellite communicators out there now that help with that. There’s a lot of good technology, but cell signal is definitely lacking in a big portion of our county.

Geoff Norcross: I also understand your search and rescue crew is entirely volunteer and I applaud them. But is that a managerial challenge for you, given how busy you are right now?

Brent Neely: It is. We’ve had an additional increase in volunteers as we’ve got the word out that we’re stressed. But we are 100% volunteer. We report to the sheriff here in Wallowa County. But there’s thousands of hours just in our little county that our volunteers put in every year. And it’s been a definite additional strain on the organization.

Geoff Norcross: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking about the increase in search and rescue missions in Oregon during the pandemic. Brent Neely is the captain of Wallowa County Search and Rescue and Scott Lucas is the search and rescue coordinator for the state of Oregon. Scott, I lived in Northern Arizona for several years, spent a lot of time in the backcountry of Grand Canyon and the search and rescue crews there would put out messaging all the time. And part of the message was, ‘Don’t count on us. There’s a possibility you could find yourself in a dangerous situation, which is too dangerous for our crews and you’re just going to have to wait.’ Is that part of your message too?

Brent Neely: I know Arizona pretty well. I know the SAR coordinator for Arizona, all the state coordinators, have a meeting once a year. With COVID, we didn’t have it, but the messaging, I think we like to put out that. ‘Yes, we’ll get there’. I think, like I said, we have a pretty robust SAR program. The technology, as Brent said, that’s worrisome to me because that’s what I get a lot of. I see all 36 counties, I see what the trends are. And I would say that we might not get to you quickly because it may take time to locate you. A lot of times we get a false signal. We do cell phone forensics and we try, [but] the big thing is a lot of our lot are misguided. They get out there and they think they can get the word back out and when they can’t, they move to a different area to get to a signal and then where we think they are, they’re not. So, yes, I can see where Arizona is coming from, but we mostly get everybody eventually. But we’re not quite as reflective as that. We will find you sooner or later. We just found one gentleman after 17 days in Douglas County. That one was pretty tough.

Geoff Norcross: So how was he?

Brent Neely: He was fine. He was fine unexpectedly. But 17 days is our record. I would never want to go 17 days lost.

Geoff Norcross: A lot of people are going to try to get into the water this weekend as hot as it’s going to be. How is that dangerous?

Brent Neely: The water temperature is the biggest thing. The rivers, especially. The lakes are a little bit warmer, it’s not so bad, but the rivers, they’re still cold and basically treacherous. And then the diving, we always talk about if you have a marine board, just put messaging out about: if you have to go in a river and you have to dive somewhere, then dive feet first. Don’t dive in headfirst and try to find the deepest water you can to sit in. It’s gonna be quite challenging. We get into where there’s a fine line with the marine board and SAR on the lakes and rivers. But we do get into the missions like Brent. I bet he’ll probably be fairly busy with all his work over there.

Geoff Norcross: Yeah, and Brent Neely I know you’re also going to be busy with training. There’s a session happening this weekend for search and rescue crews from 10 Eastern Oregon counties this weekend. Including yours. What do you think you’re going to cover?

Brent Neely: Yeah, it’s an excellent training. We do it annually to get all the Eastern Oregon counties together. They’re all volunteers. So we rely on each other quite a bit for mutual aid calls with some of the more technical rescues and things. So we have a three day weekend training that will be culminating on Sunday doing a big mock search where we have actual subjects hiding and we practice our leadership command structures and send teams out in the field and actually do a search integrated with all the other Eastern Oregon counties. So again, all volunteer, there’s thousands of hours that go into the planning and training this weekend just to be prepared and be able to perform our best when those calls come out.

Geoff Norcross: Okay. Exit question for Scott. Your advice for people who are thinking of heading out for a wilderness experience this summer. What do you think they need to keep in mind?

Scott Lucas: Well, they need to research where they’re going. You know, map recon, look at what the terrain is like, if they’re in condition to do that, look at the supplies they need to take. They need to think if they’re going to go out for several days take a little backpack with supplies, flashlight, snacks, water. You can take your cell phones, you’re gonna take your cell phone anyway, but make sure it has a full charge on it. And cell phones are good because you can call 911. And we have a new system now. Rapid 911 SOS. So if you call 911 in the state of Oregon or you can text 911, then we can fix your position if you can get it. So instead of calling your family and saying, I don’t know where I am, always call 911, that’s something I push a lot now.

Geoff Norcross: Brent Neely, anything you want to add to that for anybody who might be interested in visiting Wallowa County this weekend?

Brent Neely: I would just say to take it seriously. If you’re planning on going out in the backcountry, in the wilderness areas. Go prepared even if you only think you’re going for a few mile hike or something like that. As Scott said, take a little backpack, take some water, take enough things that if you had to stay overnight, if something happened. Take it seriously and be prepared and don’t go alone. Take a partner or multiple people. You’re a lot safer not being out there all by yourself.

Geoff Norcross: Thank you both. And best of luck this summer.

Brent Neely: All right, Thanks.

Geoff Norcross: Brent Neely is the captain of Wallowa County Search and Rescue. And Scott Lucas is the Search and Rescue coordinator for the State of Oregon.

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