CEDAR CITY – Iron County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue crews have gone out nine times since the first of January, a number nearly double that seen this same time last year and in 2015.
In 2016, search and rescue crews in Iron County had gone out five times by May 1 and four times the year before. Both years had a total of 19 efforts. This year, however, Iron County Sheriff Mark Gower said the teams have experienced higher than normal calls.
But there is not any one thing to point to that explains the increase, Gower said.
“I don’t think you can say, ‘this is why the numbers are higher this (year),’” Gower said. “The calls have all been for different reasons so it would be hard to point to one thing.
In a county of no more than 60,000 residents, the number of people in the area at any given time can double as tourists stop to enjoy the slopes for a day at Brian Head, hike Cedar Mountain or take in a play at the renowned Utah Shakespeare Festival.
There is also an influx of part-time residents during the school year when out-of-town students flock in to attend Southern Utah University.
Whatever the reason more people are in the area, the upsurge in population can also increase the number of search and rescue calls in the area, Iron County Sheriff’s Lt. Del Schlosser said.
“Our new Shakespearean festival hall is bringing in more tourists,” Schlosser said. “The university has also experienced huge growth in student numbers the last couple of years. All that makes a difference as more and more people get out in the backcountry, on the slopes and even out for a day hike.”
The reasons for the search and rescue calls, Schlosser said, are not much different than in years past – hikers who get lost or twist an ankle, drivers on the back roads who get stuck and mountain climbers who find their way to the top but can’t get down.
Many visiting the area are also not familiar with how hot it can get in the higher elevations and underestimate how much water they’ll need on a hike. Others are not aware of how quickly the weather can change in the colder months.
Others, even locals, often get lost. One of the larger counties in the state, Iron County is made up of acres and acres of public lands with seemingly endless dirt roads and trails.
“It’s easy to get out there and get situated around and not know what direction you came from or how to get back,” Gower said.
Studying the travel area beforehand, checking the weather, making sure to have the right supplies and enough water should all be on the list of musts before heading out in the middle of nowhere.
“More importantly though, is letting someone know you’re going, where and when you expect to be back,” the sheriff said.
Most search and rescue efforts have a happy ending but not all.
This year, crews spent nearly two days in February searching the remote area on the border of Iron and Garfield Counties looking for a downed plane that had been carrying a father and his two children. Much of the region was inaccessible even by off-road vehicles.
The search began on an early Sunday morning, Feb. 26, with a massive search and rescue effort made up of crews from five counties in some of the most rugged terrain in the area. The search grid was 400 square miles.
It ended the following morning at around 11 a.m. when the aerial search crew in the Department of Public Safety helicopter found the Cessna 172 crashed into the side of a mountain. There were no survivors.
Read more: Missing plane found, no survivors
The pilot, Randy Wells, had left Phoenix Saturday night with his two children, 8-year-old Asher and 3-year-old Sarah. On their way home to Salt Lake City, Wells ran into bad weather and in the process of trying to find Interstate 15 lost his way, authorities reported at the time.
The news rocked the state as people everywhere pulled together to offer support to the family.
But stories like these are rare. Most of the time search and rescue crews locate surviving parties and can assist them out of their predicament.
The most recent search and rescue call in Iron County came just last week when a hiker was found on the west end of the county by other hikers. He had been lost for 48 hours without any food or water and was extremely dehydrated.
This time the full search and rescue team wasn’t necessary as he was close enough to the road a deputy was able to assist him by himself.
“He (the deputy) brought him some water and food and then he wanted to be taken to his vehicle so that’s what he did,” Gower said. “I still consider it a search and rescue effort though because it was. If he had not been found and then helped he would not have made it.”
Many search and rescue efforts take hours to complete – all of the service and time donated by the volunteers that make up the crews. Operations are largely funded by private donations with members of the nonprofit organization providing their own personal vehicle and equipment, uniforms and expense money to help their neighbor.
Those interested in donating to search and rescue may contact the Iron County Sheriff’s Office at 435-867-7500 for more information or mail a check to Iron County Sheriff’s Office at 2132 N. Main St., Cedar City, Utah 84721.
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