Sheriff’s Sgt. Danny Wikstrom can’t say enough about Snohomish County’s search-and-rescue volunteers.
“These folks love the outdoors, they love people and they want to serve,” Wikstrom said. “They live and breathe their motto, ‘So others may live.'”
Wikstrom often ends up being the public face of search and rescue in Snohomish County, but he denies being a rescue expert.
“The volunteers are the experts. They’re the ones whose boots are on the ground,” Wikstrom said. “It’s a matter of pride and respect. They can be counted on to save lives. The sheriff’s office can’t do this without them.”
Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue members don’t want fellow hikers charged for rescues. In theory, emergencies can be avoided with good training, planning and equipment. However, even the most highly trained can get into trouble.
Volunteers fear that a rescue fee would deter people from calling for help right away. The longer the wait, the longer the search, and the more risk to volunteers, they say. In the mountains, even a twisted ankle can be life-threatening. The volunteers sum it up like this: They’d rather search for a lost hiker than recover the body of a dead hiker.
Volunteers, who all do their work for free, are worth about $30 an hour each, according to county estimates. Add to that the cost of gear, mountain bikes and vehicles. Those in canine or equine units also have the expense of caring for animals.
More than 90 percent of the total hours worked during the top 25 missions in recent years were from volunteers, data show.
Search and Rescue also depends on partnerships with volunteer fire departments and local tribes who often pitch in to help.
Two helicopters are in the service of local Search and Rescue crews. The smaller chopper costs about $350 an hour to run, and the larger Huey helicopter flies at a cost of about $1,000 an hour. The Sheriff’s Office pays a deputy or two to supervise each rescue. It also covers the cost of fuel and to feed search and rescue crews.
Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue depends on contributions from individuals as well as organizations such as the Boeing Fund and the Tulalip Tribes to keep it all going. Annual donations, including those that are memorial contributions, total about $35,000.
Volunteers don’t expect a thank-you note from those who have been rescued, Wikstrom said. Expecting people to act responsibly is all they ask.
“We live in a beautiful place, and when the weather is good, we want to get outside,” Wikstrom said. “Mount Pilchuck is a favorite destination, but one of the worst areas. We do a lot of rescues there because people are not always as prepared as they should be.”