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Search and Rescue: Teens get into the act

by Merrie Leininger

Alpine County has recreation safety problems unique to remote, high-altitude areas that are popular with snowshoers and backpackers – as a result, snowshoers and backpackers often get lost there.

The volunteer heroes who make up the Alpine County Search and Rescue Unit often have to drop everything to look for a lost hiker or dig for someone buried in an avalanche.

Last weekend, the next generation of heroes conducted an all-day field exercise that included simulated events they might face someday.

The Venture Group members are 14-to-18-year-olds who have been training for about six months with members of search and rescue and the California Highway Patrol in all the areas the search and rescue team is needed.

Meeting at Blue Lakes recreation area off Highway 88 early Saturday morning, seven of the 12 Venture Group members, Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School and Douglas High School students, were briefed that a plane had gone down somewhere in the area.

Donning helmets, four group members set off in teams of two to search for the “plane” – tin foil crudely shaped into a small plane – while the rest of the Venture Group acted as the communications post.

The teams were given two hours to find the plane using a signal from a box that is usually in the tail of the plane. The box, a electronic locator transmitter, or ELT, in a downed plane emits a signal gives rescuers the plane’s location.

Driving snowmobiles, (and followed by two adults for safety) the teams split up and find a high point to take a reading on their own latitude and longitude.

Dan Gleason, 14, a student at Pau-Wa-Lu, and his teammate Steve Watson, 16, who attends Douglas High School, were the first to find the plane.

“We knew we were close, so we were looking all around here and we kept going right by it. Then I lost Steve and he drove right over it,” Gleason said, bragging that his team managed to find the plane even though his hand was injured recently in a snowmobile training session.

Once the group was together at the plane crash site, the teen-agers were told the passengers of the plane were trapped in an avalanche.

Jumping into action again, the group got out their electronic rescue transceivers and, spread out in a grid, attempted to find the first of the buried “people.” In actuality, what was buried was a avalanche transceiver that was transmitting a signal.

The next victim would be more difficult to find because he did not have a avalanche transceiver and the Venture Group used long poles to push into the snow until they came upon something solid. Digging frantically, the students found their second victim – a scarecrow.

The next step in the training was getting the victim to a California Highway Patrol rescue helicopter.

Helicopter pilot Kevin Vinatieri and flight officer and paramedic Chuck Dunbar landed the helicopter in a flat area known as Charity Valley.

Vinatieri gave the teen-agers instructions if they really need a helicopter in an emergency situation.

“We need to know a lot of information about the landing area such as wind direction and hazards such as power lines,” Vinatieri said. “Once we come in for the approach, back away and cover the patient.”

CHP Officer Ron Gleason, father of Venture Group participant Dan Gleason, started the group with the help of Alpine County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Dan Doyal.

“It’s fun for them and it gets them to work with adults. It also helps their self-worth. They’ve already been on a couple of searches,” he said.

He said the 12 teen-agers are isolated from their school mates by living in Markleeville or Woodfords and don’t have a lot of recreation options there.

By getting training in snowmobiling, first aid and avalanche safety, they are not only keeping busy, they are becoming the next generation of search and rescue volunteers.

Gleason said about half of the student’s families are involved in Alpine County’s search and rescue.

One of those students is Dena Catelani, 14, a student at Pau-Wa-Lu, who said her whole family has been involved in search and rescue.

“I like that I can help people – (we get) a lot of missing people up here,” she said.

Sheena Watson, 14, who is the sister of Venture participant Steve Watson, said she joined to have something to do.

“I thought it would be fun – a nice after-school activity,” she said.