How Alaska excels at taking care of its own
When seconds count, it’s often the little things that matter most.
In the backcountry outpost of Petersville, a humble 16-by-24-foot cabin could be just the right size to save lives and make sure more folks who visit the snowmachine paradise northwest of Talkeetna live to ride another day.
“This is going to be for the whole community,” said Michele Stevens, who grew up in Talkeetna and has been riding in the area for more than three decades.
Stevens is the founder of both the Petersville Search and Rescue and the Petersville Community Nonprofit Corp. The latter is the group responsible for bringing the new wood search-and-rescue cabin/community building to the Kenny Creek Subdivision. Completed in April 2016, the building be used to house search and rescue equipment that for years went from cabin to cabin.
“Now we have a place to house all our rescue gear,” she said.
Having the building in a centralized location will also make it easier for searchers to get organized when a call goes out that someone is lost, missing, stranded or injured.
“The majority of our (search and rescue) people live in the subdivision, so now they can get to the rescue building and the sled, and it will expedite all their efforts of getting to the victim fast,” she said.
Volunteering for Duty
In a place where state resources could be hours away, amenities like the new search-and-rescue building are just one way dozens of volunteer organizations work to improve search-and-rescue capabilities. In fact, if it weren’t for volunteers, experts say searching Alaska’s vast terrain for those needing help would be a nightmare.
“There’s absolutely no way we could coordinate all of the SNR we do in this state on the limited funding we get without our volunteer groups,” said Lt. Steve Adams, who heads up Emergency Management and Search and Rescue for the Alaska State Troopers.
Troopers are the lead agency on all search and rescue efforts in Alaska, but Adams said the law enforcement agency’s primary role is to facilitate and coordinate rescues.
“Resources here in Alaska are a combination of federal, state, local and volunteer – with a heavy emphasis on volunteer because they are in the communities and they are easily able to respond,” he said.
When a 911 call comes in, the responding Trooper quickly assesses the situation and begins to call up resources in the area. Usually that’s one or more of the 40-plus search-and-rescue organizations statewide, groups like the one in Petersville Stevens helped start 30 years ago.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a season I haven’t been called,” she said.
Locals are vital to finding victims because they know the terrain and can mobilize in minutes rather than hours. When she gets a call about someone who is lost or hurt, Stevens said the search can begin instantly.
“They’re in my back yard, usually,” she said.
Part of a team
Corey Aist is president of the Alaska Search and Rescue Association, a statewide group that includes groups ranging from small community organizations to specialized groups like the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group and Aist’s Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs. Aist said search-and-rescue efforts in Alaska are possible because of the work of many different groups working together toward a common goal: saving lives.
“It really is a team effort,” he said. “We’ve been very fortunate in Alaska, we have some outstanding local organizations.”
And, he said, more help is always appreciated.
“We’re always looking for dedicated, committed people who have backcountry skills and more than anything else can work as a team,” he said.
Lt. Adams said he thinks the tight-knit, community-centered structure of search-and-rescue in Alaska is a model that serves the state well. There is flexibility of having both local responders all the way up to federal resources such as the Alaska Air National Guard.
“I think the organization of search-and-rescue, the process we have in Alaska is very good,” said Adams, who estimated there are more than 1,100 volunteers statewide.
He said he’s spoken to counterparts Outside who complain about needless levels of bureaucracy that can slow searchers or add agonizing minutes to rescue operations.
“We don’t have any of that here in Alaska, everybody works very well together,” he said. “Everybody has their eye on the end goal, and that’s just to find the missing person.”
Though the state’s network works well together, Lt. Adams believes more help is always needed, whether that comes in the form of donations to local groups or better funding from the state ithrough grants or other supplemental help.
“Particularly for the volunteer organizations, some kind of permanent funding stream,” would be helpful, he said.
In the case of the Petersville SAR building, the Mat-Su Borough donated a parcel of land, and state grants and donations helped pay the $15,000 cost of the structure. Mark Richter of Glacier Country Construction completed the building in the spring.
“He did a phenomenal job,” Stevens said.
Stevens said the work also couldn’t have been done without such volunteers as Aaron Bartell of BC Excavating, who donated time and equipment for the dirt work. Steve Miranda is building an outhouse and generator shed, Bob Barndt is helping with electrical work and Mike St. Onge is helping with security.
The nonprofit Stevens founded about a year ago planned to use the building to host a “Best Soup in the ‘Ville!” contest on New Year’s Eve – a fundraising event that featured a soup contest with a grand prize donated by Allen and Petersen. The group also will hold its annual poker run on April 1, she added.
The building still needs some TLC, Stevens said. The group is looking for a new generator and some shelving. Stevens said she wants to find more ways to bring the community together. She thinks it’s vital local snowmachiners cooperate in areas such as search-and-rescue because of the massive need for resources in the sparsely populated state. That’s why she started the search-and-rescue group 30 years ago and that’s why she keeps trying to strengthen it today.
“I just felt there was a need,” she said.
And there’s always a need. According to Lt. Adams, there were 467 official search-and-rescue operations statewide in the previous fiscal year. Those rescues range from “tourists in flip-flops on Flattop” to snowmachiners caught in avalanches in Hatcher Pass.
Not all of those stories end well. In the winter of 2015-16, six people died in avalanches in Alaska, including four snowmachiners, a skier and a snowboarder. Nationwide there were 30 avalanche fatalities, with 10 of those reportedly riding snowmachines, according to a database at avalanche.org.
But the vast majority of searches are a success, with local rescuers reaching stranded or injured travelers and bringing them home safe. Lt. Adams said that without a network of more than a thousand volunteers working together statewide, those efforts simply couldn’t happen.
“It would be impossible.”
To find out more about the Petersville Search-and-Rescue and Community Nonprofit Corp., visit petersvillecommunitynpc.org.