Tuolumne County Search and RescueJun 15th, 2011 | By Patty Fuller | Category: Safe, Sound and Savvy
By Patty Fuller
One made his living performing root canals. Another is a past Mother Lode Roundup queen who’s now a grandmother and small business owner. There’s also a probation officer, hair stylist, retired banker and Vietnam veteran.
It’s an eclectic mix. But beyond the fact that all are 50 and older, these Central Sierra residents have a stronger bond. They are among about 30 volunteers dedicated to a demanding job that would seem to require members who are young in years rather than young at heart.
Dealing with the foothills’ rugged and wild terrain coupled with its extreme hot and cold seasons, the Tuolumne County Search and Rescue team heads out dozens of times a year on calls as far ranging as, well, its membership. A sampling of people the team has helped find shows the remarkable range of conditions in which they operate: Kids lost during a high-country camping trip; visitors thinking they can easily tube white water sections of area rivers; skiers heading out of bounds in search of ideal powder; solo hikers lost in the remote Emigrant Wilderness; and homicide victims believed to be in area reservoirs.
Mutual aid – helping neighboring agencies, such as search and rescue teams from Calaveras County or Yosemite National Park – is another service team members provide year-round.
The search team’s over-50 members find the path they’ve chosen rewarding.
“I love it. It gives me peace of mind, knowing I can help in this way,” says Laurie Lyons, 53, of Twain Harte. It’s also a level of service she’s known most of her life. A fifth-generation Tuolumne County native, Lyons recalls when her father, the late Dave Fraser Sr., was active with the team’s mounted unit – which decades ago involved mostly area ranchers who would saddle up and head out whenever necessary to find a hiker or Boy Scout lost in the high country.
Lyons’s husband, Rob Lyons, is a deputy and search-and-rescue coordinator with the Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the team. He is also assigned to the civil coroner’s division.
Laurie often accompanied him on actual rescues and team training events. She officially joined the team about three years ago. The retail store owner and past Mother Lode Roundup queen has since been trained in helicopter, all-terrain vehicle and Nordic rescues. She’s also the team mounted unit’s leader, heading searches done on horseback.
Ongoing training is an aspect of search and rescue work that team members take as seriously as the calls they respond to. And the training can be as tough, or tougher, than those missions.
Consider the February night earlier this year, when several team members ventured up to a steep slope at Dodge Ridge. They pitched tents and, when not trying to sleep, performed mock snow rescues. Temperatures that night dropped to a record-breaking 6 below zero.
Among those team members was Twain Harte resident Tony Savage, 63, who recently retired to Twain Harte from a busy San Diego-area dental practice. While a self-described search and rescue team “neophyte,” Savage has immersed himself in the cause since joining last summer. That freezing night was just one of many training sessions Savage already has under his belt.
“They prepare us ahead of time. It’s an amazing group; there’s good team spirit,” Savage says. “And there are so many dedicated people on the team. They’re so committed, and so willing to train.”
Savage has already been on several rescue calls. Two turned into recoveries, meaning team members and other emergency agencies involved found a body. The father of two himself, Savage cites a call at New Melones Reservoir last year in which a teenage boy died after jumping from a high cliff into the water.
Like this one, many calls are emotional, Rob Lyons notes.
“The vast majority result in a happy ending. Very few turn out to be recoveries,” he says. “But even in those cases, the families of the missing person are grateful to have closure.”
Like Laurie Lyons, Savage says age has not been an issue. This level of volunteer work, rather, helps keep them fit and energized, both say.
Many team members buy the rugged protective gear that many searches require, but being a member doesn’t demand a large bank account, Rob Lyons says. The team, with headquarters near Columbia Airport, has amassed a significant amount of gear for its members. Funding is through the sheriff’s budget, and donations – many from relatives of those the team has rescued.
An invaluable resource that team members turn to repeatedly is one of their own: Jim Scruggs, a retired sheriff’s deputy and lifelong county resident. The amiable 62-year-old Columbia man knows the region’s high country well. He started learning its many trails, lakes, wonders and dangers as a boy helping his late father, rancher Artie Scruggs, turn out and gather cattle on the Stanislaus National Forest.
Then, as a teen and young man, Scruggs worked at high-country pack stations. In the 1970s, he was the Pinecrest area resident sheriff’s deputy. Active with Mother Lode search and rescue missions for some 40 years, Scruggs said the Tuolumne County team became “full-fledged” around 1975. He attributed that to such men as Jim Mendonsa and the late Jim Segerstrom.
Mendonsa, now retired from teaching fire science and rescue skills at Columbia College, assisted in innumerable rescue missions around the Mother Lode and in the aftermath of huge disasters – such as the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the Bay Area and the 1995 Murrah federal building bombing in Oklahoma City. Segerstrom, a Sonora native, was an internationally recognized swift water, ropes and helicopter rescue expert. Another highly respected rescue expert, Barry Edwards, and retired teacher and forester Dale Keyser, also helped train the new team’s first members.
Having such skilled founding members, Scruggs said, made the team a respected resource from the start.
Most rescues, then and now, involve just one or two people who have been reported missing. Scruggs said the opening of deer hunting season for years had area rescue teams almost constantly on the move.
“There used to be opening weekends where we’d have 50 or 60 hunters missing,” he notes, adding that rarely did any of them die.
“Sometimes they just didn’t read any maps,” Scruggs says. “It’s almost always one thing that they didn’t do to prepare, and they go out by themselves.”
Team members report that missing hunter or hiker calls have decreased in recent years, thanks to such gadgets as personal locater beacons that beam status reports to friends’ or relatives’ computers or cell phones.
Much like Scruggs, 64-year-old Bob Steele spent most of his life dealing with both tragedies and happy endings in his jobs with the Berkeley Fire Department. He’s also an Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam. He joined search and rescue after he and his wife, Patty, retired and moved to Columbia more than 13 years ago.
“I had some of the skills the team uses, and when I retired … I wanted to give back,” Steele says. “I wanted to do something that counts without taking any compensation.”
He has since devoted thousands of hours to the team, training other members and assisting with rescue calls. He’s also the leader for the team’s all-terrain vehicle and dive units. Patty Steele, a chaplain with the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Department, is trained in crisis intervention. She also serves as a family liaison during search missions, working to keeping relatives up to date on what’s being done to find their loved ones.
There may be easier or less-time-consuming activities to take on after retirement. But Bob Steele says search and rescue work is a perfect niche for older volunteers who like the outdoors, want to remain in good shape and don’t want to sit idle.
“I was service oriented and am still service oriented,” says Steele. “And I’ve seen what happens to older people when they become inactive. … I figure I’ve got another 10 years or so to devote to this.”
Tips for staying safe
For Tuolumne County Search and Rescue member Irene Patton, the mission is personal.
She got lost on a 1992 day hike in Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains and was rescued by a helicopter crew the next morning. “I ended up on a ledge where I could see all the lights of L.A. and realized I was going to have to spend the night here,” Patton, 64, recalls.
Her dedication to search and rescue, first with the Contra Costa team and since 2002 with the local unit, has amounted to “payback time.” Now, after hundreds of hours of training and numerous search missions, Patton reckons her debt has been paid. “But I still find the work interesting,” she says.
A visitor information assistant at the Stanislaus National Forest’s Summit Ranger Station, she offers three survival tips:
• Tell someone where you are going, with planned route and return date. This person can make sure you have safely returned and get help if you haven’t.
• Stay with your hiking partner or group, rather than split off for an unscheduled, unannounced side trip. Those who do sometimes get lost.
• Carry a map and compass and learn how to use them. Many hikers now rely on cell phones and personal locators, but cell range is limited and batteries can die. A compass can help you going in the right direction.
© 2011 Friends and Neighbors