New heights

🕔Dec 15, 2005

Search and Rescue in the Northwest is finding more than lost hikers nowadays.

An increase in call volume—and for more demanding rescues—have volunteers across the region teaming up for a new Mountain Rescue program.

Over the next couple of years, a team of 15 from Kitimat, Terrace, Bulkley Valley and Prince George will be certified for extreme environments.

This will allow rescues in glacier crevasses, or several pitches up on big rock walls, as well as evacuation through difficult, technical terrain where mountaineering skills are essential.

Two of the volunteers, Shelly and Scott Hicks from Terrace, are already certified mountain rescuers. Originally from Golden in the Rocky Mountains, they used to see high-level rescues on an ongoing basis.

Last fall, Shelly was able to put her training to good use here when a local hunter stumbled and fell down a cliff off Sterling Mountain north of Terrace. He was knocked unconscious, fractured his leg and suffered numerous lacerations to his face.

“We had to lower him three pitches down a cliff bank. Then he was heli-slung back to a main road, where he was picked up by ambulance.”

Shelly anticipates an increasing need for more severe rescues in this area.

“There are more people accessing the backcountry, and the population’s recreation pursuits get more advanced,” she said.

Search manager for Bulkley Valley Search and Rescue, Whitney Numan, helps co-ordinate rescue operations across the region, due to the high skill set his group is able to lend other areas.

“We have a unique team with very qualified people in all rescue capabilities: swift-water, rope, and avalanche.”

With the addition of certified mountain rescuers, response times for mountain rescue will shorten and hopefully save lives. “Rescues are extremely time-sensitive,” Numan stressed.

But having a team of 15 is not sufficient in the long term, as a minimum of five would be needed for a call-out. And with volunteers away or unable to get away from work, “we’re lucky if we get one out of three,” he said.

The financial situation of the volunteer-run service is an on-going problem. Unlike other rescue personnel, such as fire or ambulance, all search and rescue team members not only work for free, but many also lose salary to participate. They are reimbursed for expenses associated with the searches, but often donate the money back to SAR, as volunteers need to fundraise for all equipment as well, Numan said.

To provide the service and attract skilled volunteers is very hard on small communities, he noted. The population of an area often dictates how many volunteers are available and how much money a team can raise to operate effectively without it becoming an unrealistic financial burden on the volunteers.

Fundraising takes valuable time away from training and maintaining specialized rescue skills. Smaller communities also rely on volunteers for other aspects of community service, and more often than not small town and rural folk volunteer for more than one service, which limits the amount of time one can dedicate to a specific cause.

Without base funding through government taxation, he sees no other option than trying to reduce the number of search and rescue operations.

Ever year, the call-outs have increased by 15 per cent province-wide—or 130 per cent in the past 15 years. “That increase is not sustainable for volunteers,” Numan said. “Education and awareness is the only way to stem the tide.

A brand-new project is just getting underway. Snow Safety is aimed at kids Grade 5-7, and provides information both for on-hill skiing safety and for backcountry use. The initiative is part of the AdventureSmart program, which kicked off last year. It aims to create an awareness among the public to take responsibility for their outdoor activities.

In addition to the website, which offers information on trip safety for seasonal activities such as avalanche bulletins in the winter, SAR teams across the province are doing their share to educate recreational users.

Volunteers are busy year-round making school presentations for RCMP’s program Hug-A-Tree, which shows kids aged five to 12 the importance of staying in one location when realizing they are lost.

Over the next three years, the program is to get over a million dollars in government funding, as prevention is significantly cheaper than actual rescue missions.

Last year, the Provincial Emergency Program spent $1,370,958 just for the search and rescue operations. It’s been estimated it would have cost as much as $6 million had the volunteers been paid.

Tourism in B.C. contributes between $9 and $11 billion to the B.C. economy annually, and ecotourism is the fastest growing segment.

Search and rescue is a critical public-safety lifeline both for the tourism industry and the citizens of B.C. in general, Numan pointed out. And as ambassadors of the great outdoors, he added, they encourage the public to enjoy the spectacular playground we live in, but do it safely.


There are 4,700 registered volunteers who are organized into 93 provincial Search and Rescue teams in B.C.

During the 2003/04 season, 1,193 people were reported lost in the backcountry. Volunteers in B.C. were called out for 933 searches.

Most of the time, victims are found alive and given first aid, but 63 people died in the backcountry last year and 98 were never found.

Provincial statistics show that hiking is the most common activity to generate search and rescue missions—about 25 per cent of all calls.

Windsurfing, jet skiing, horseback riding and snowshoeing share the spot for being the least likely activity for getting lost in B.C.

In the Northwest, statistics show that the number of hikers getting lost is closely followed by mushroom pickers and boaters. Not surprisingly, there were no jet skiers getting lost in our area, but more hunters in proportion to provincial averages.

The following locations in the North have active SAR groups:

All Island SAR-Queen Charlottes, Prince Rupert, Kitimat, Gitiks, Dease Lake, New Hazelton, Bulkley Valley, Houston, Burns Lake, Fort St James, Vanderhoof, Prince George, McBride, Quesnel, Mackenzie, Chetwynd and Fort St John.

To become involved or to find out more, please phone the Provincial Emergency Program office in Terrace at (250) 615-4800, or in Prince George at (250) 612-4172.