Washington County Search and Rescue sees all-time high in calls for 2020

ST. GEORGE —Last year will be long remembered for the life-changing upheaval the COVID-19 pandemic wrought across the world. For the Washington County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue team, it marks a year that ends with an all-time high in calls, many of which are believed to have been indirectly caused by the pandemic – or more particularly, other states’ response to it.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue team responds to a call in Washington County, Utah, August 2019 | Photo courtesy of Washington County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue, St. George News

Washington County Sheriff’s Sgt. Darrell Cashin, the Sheriff’s Office liaison to the county search and rescue team, gave the Washington County Commission the team’s year-end report during a commission meeting on Tuesday.

The county’s search and rescue team responded to 174 calls compared to the prior year’s 130 calls. Search and rescue volunteers also totaled nearly 7,100 man hours for the year in training and time out on calls. The jump in calls has been tied to an increase in visitation to Washington County by people who tend to live outside the state due to Utah’s less restrictive response to the pandemic.

“Because other states around us – Colorado being the first, then California – locked down a bunch of their state parks and beaches, a lot of people who wanted to be outside said, ‘Hey, let’s go to Southern Utah,’” Washington County Commission Chair Gil Almquist said Thursday.

Almquist said he believed the influx of calls had to do with people from outside the area who were unfamiliar with the local terrain and what came with it, which resulted in those visitors being caught off guard and unprepared.

Washington County Search and Rescue team members help carry an injuries hiker to a nearby ambulance, Washington County, January, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Washington County Search and Rescue, St. George News

Hikers not being prepared for a venture into the wilderness is a common reason the county’s search and rescue team gets called out, Cashin previously told St. George News. People either don’t dress warmly enough or forget to take an adequate amount of water, among other failures in preparation, he said.

Rescues ran the gamut from finding stranded or lost and injured hikers, helping the victims of mountain bike, UTV or ATV crashes and tending to the occasional body recovery, as well as other incidents. The search and rescue team was also called out to certain incidents where authorities believed their expertise was needed, such as the case surrounding Holly Suzanne Courtier who had gone missing in Zion National Park in October. She was found alive and well soon after her disappearance.

Areas of Washington County that have seen repeated responses by the search and rescue team include Snow Canyon State Park, Red Mountain, the Bear Claw Poppy Trail and Sand Mountain.

By late October, Cashin reported to the County Commission that the search and rescue team had responded to calls on a nearly daily basis over the last month. This led to concerns that search and rescue team members, all of whom are volunteers with the exception of Cashin, were getting burned out.

A way the county has sought to alleviate potential cases of burnout is by putting volunteers on a rotation for calls, Almquist said, adding that if a volunteer appears to be struggling after a call, they can be taken off the rotation until they are ready to come back.

A photo of Jeff Hunt’s paraglider after it crashed on Jan. 1, 2021 in St. George, Utah | Photo courtesy of Brad Roper, St. George News

Discussion about compensating the county’s search and rescue volunteers has been had by the commission, Almquist said. However, just how that would look once applied has yet to be figured out.

So far this year, as of Tuesday, the Washington County Search and Rescue has responded to eight calls.

Among the first of the calls to come in was for a paragliding crash west of St. George on Jan. 2. The paraglider’s pilot, Jeff Hunt, of St. George, is also a member of the county’s search and rescue team.

“We didn’t know he was one of our SAR members until we almost got to him,” Cashin said.

Hunt experienced several broken bones, a ruptured aorta, as well as bleeding on his brain and pancreas. Despite the injures, Cashin said Hunt is “doing well.”

“I check in on him regularly,” he said.

Updates on the Washington County Search and Rescue team’s activities are often posted to the team’s Facebook page, along with photos of recent incidents, as well as an ongoing tally of how many calls the team has responded to since the start of the year.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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