The season is ripe for outdoor adventures, which means search-and-rescue teams are at the ready to handle ensuing mishaps.
Search-and-rescue operations are carried out with limited resources, but locals and tourists can subsidize missions by purchasing a Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue (CORSAR) card.
“Because there’s no budget for SAR teams, there’s no way to fund them,” said Denise Stepto, director of communications at the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, which oversees the program. “And as the state grows in population, we have more out recreating, and we’ve had a huge tourism boost, and those folks are also having incidents.”
For every $3 CORSAR card purchased, $2 goes into a coffer that the state will reallocate to Colorado search-and-rescue organizations based on need (the other $1 is given to the vendor). Other states, including Utah, have similar programs to help fund emergency services when people need saving.
Summer 2016 has already seen a series of close calls in La Plata County.
Over the past two months, responders searched for a 19-year-old hiker from Nebraska who lost his way near Vallecito, and a local man and three children who spent two days astray in the Weminuche Wilderness. Fortunately, in both cases, the missing were found uninjured.
They rescued several adrenaline-seeking jumpers at Cascade Falls and a man who broke his ankle at 13,200 feet hiking Windom Peak. And last week, a woman was rescued from Engineer Mountain after experiencing health complications.
“We range from 32 to 42 missions annually, and we have some false starts and resolves,” said Ron Corkish, mission coordinator and president of La Plata County Search and Rescue.
Corkish said those missions tend to involve more tourists than locals.
“There is a certain acumen that if you spend some time living on the Western Slope, you’re kind of dialed in and know the expectations,” he said. “If you come here from Missouri, Kansas, New York City – you don’t have that expectation of weather, and how things like elevation can impact your person.”
Corkish’s team is composed of about 90 volunteers who receive costly training, which for the first time this year was subsidized by the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, Corkish said. Equipment costs add up as well – a rope, for example, is retired after eight missions.
“For groups that don’t hunt, don’t boat, don’t fish – they didn’t have a way to pay into the fund, so that’s where the CORSAR card helps,” Corkish said.
The search-and-rescue fund was created in 1987 to reimburse search-and-rescue teams for equipment, maintenance and other expenses.
Its funds come from a 25-cent surcharge imposed on hunting and fishing licenses, as well as boat, snowmobile and off-highway vehicle registrations. CORSAR card purchases are optional for those who want to contribute.
According to last year’s report, most missions were covered by fees extracted from hunting licenses.
Since the program’s inception, licenses and cards have raised $6.6 million. Last year, $283,100 was awarded to Colorado counties, and the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office received its $5,533 request in full.
One of the costliest aspects of a mission is helicopter use.
“The terrain here is so rough, so inaccessible, a helicopter is often the easiest way to look (for a party),” said Butch Knowlton, director of the county Office of Emergency Management. The cost to use one runs from $1,400 to $2,400 an hour, he said.
There were 1,655 search-and-rescue missions in Colorado in 2015, up by more than 400 compared with 2014. As La Plata County grows and draws more tourists, emergency management expects those numbers to rise, although Corkish said the advent of self-saving technology like global positioning systems and better cellphone service are helping.
For the first time, search-and-rescue agencies will be able to quantify missions as well as hours in the field through CORSAR membership and other data using software called D4H, purchased with self-raised funds in May.
It’s expected to be a baseline for data collection and an asset for grant writing.
There are no plans to increase the cost of the CORSAR card, Stepto said; rather, the Department of Local Affairs aims to raise awareness about the program and recruit more participants.
Lt. Pat Downs with the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office said the office doesn’t begrudge search-and-rescue season: “A lot of us are outdoor people, doing the same things. We just want people to know that a search-and-rescue card is so valuable, and understand the seasons and risks here.”