Nevada Army National Guard air ambulance helicopters patrolled the ridges around Carson City on Saturday afternoon, but they weren't looking for missing hunters or lost hikers.
Instead, the red straps stretching down from a UH60A Medivac Blackhawk were tethered to bullet-riddled abandoned vehicles that have trashed up the public lands around Carson for years.
The 717th Air Ambulance Co. teamed up with the Bureau of Land Management to remove five old hulks that had been rusting in locations too remote for wreckers or even bulldozers to reach.
High on the ridge between Carson City and Washoe Lake, a cable extended from one chopper to lower Capt. Dan Waters next to a burned-out pickup while another Blackhawk hovered nearby, serving as a spotter craft. Waters fed cable and chains around the truck's front bumper and frame, then lit a green smoke flare so the pilot would have a wind reference as he moved in for the connection. The massive blades whipped loose earth into a brown dust devil as Waters linked the cables to the lift lines.
As the whine of the blades increased, the rusted hulk swung through the air on the way to a less remote drop-off site.
"Without the Guard's help, these wrecks would just have to stay out there. We've tried to remove some of them before,. but we just did not have the equipment to handle it," Frances Hall of the Carson City BLM office said.
"We tried to get a bulldozer out to one of them on Prison Hill, but the road had washed out. Another was so full of sand a wrecker couldn't budge it."
By the end of the two-hour operation, five of the hard to reach wrecks had been moved to landing zones where they could later be loaded onto trucks for disposal.
"Our helicopter pilots have to log a certain number of hours each year to maintain their proficiency and this is a perfect opportunity to practice sling-loading techniques while assisting the local BLM office clean up some junked cars," Waters said.
When BLM employees discover abandoned vehicles on public lands, the first step is to try and identify the owners, so they or their insurance companies can take responsibility for the removal, BLM public information officer Mark Struble said.
"But often the junkers are so old, or the engines have been removed, or they've been burned so there's no VIN numbers left," Struble said.
And the agency does not have enough funds budgeted to remove all the junk that gets dumped on public lands.
"It would take millions of dollars to clean up all the stuff people dump in Nevada," BLM ranger Wally Barnard said.
As he drove back down Goni Road from the remote lift site, Barnard passed several junked refrigerators, pieces of furniture and other household castoffs slowly degenerating in the Nevada sun. Most were perforated from recreational target practice.
He said he only caught people in the act of illegal dumping a few times, since they know he's around. Sometimes residents of an area will call when they suspect a loaded vehicle is headed into the wilds to dump trash, he said.
"Our best tool is education," Struble said. Barnard said 90 percent of his job is explaining to people on public lands what the laws and regulations are.
Some organizations with special attachments to certain areas, such as off-road motorcycle groups, have adopted them and kept them cleaned up, similar to the Adopt-a-Highway program, Struble said. But it's heavy work and involves some dangers from sharp edges, heavy lifting and even biohazards such as discarded needles from drug users, he said.
"Still, if there's any group that wants to get out here and help out, I'd like to hear from them," Struble said.
Eleven members of the Army Guard participated in the cleanup, including nine "weekend warriors" and two full-timers who were supervising and training, Waters said.
The Guard had performed the same service for the U.S. Forest Service on Peavine Mountain near Reno about two months ago. Waters said the idea came from a Reno city worker who had been a chopper pilot in Vietnam.