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Search and Rescue incidents up during summer of COVID-19

Albuquerque Search and Rescue team member Jeff Averhoff, center, talks with volunteers during the search for a missing Rio Rancho girl in 2014. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

More people are hitting the hiking trails this summer, seeking to escape to the outdoors as nearly all the usual outlets for entertainment and many for exercise have become unavailable amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

And with it, Search and Rescue (SAR) missions in New Mexico have increased this year. The uptick started after many businesses were closed and stay-at-home orders went into effect in mid-March, with some recreational activities, such as hiking, being an exception.

A Journal analysis of data provided by Bob Rodgers, SAR resource officer with New Mexico State Police, shows that so far this year SAR missions are up by more than 20% over the previous two years. Beginning in April – the first full month of the shutdown after the coronavirus took hold – SAR missions have increased by about 35% over the average of the two previous years.

Rodgers can’t say for sure if the increase is due to the pandemic.

“It’s hard to narrow it down to a specific cause as to why we’ve seen an increase,” he said.

But anecdotally, hiking trails are busier in 2020 because of COVID-19. All the usual activities and events have been canceled this year, leaving people feeling isolated. There are no movie theaters to go to, no concerts, no nightlife. So many folks have found that hiking helps pass the time, is something the family can do together and is good exercise to boot.

“It does seem now that everyone is on quarantine, we’ve had more incidents,” said Capt. Nathan Garcia of the Santa Fe Fire Department, whose SAR team last weekend rescued an injured man who apparently had been lost in the Santa Fe National Forest for a couple of weeks. “All up and down Hyde Park Road, the parking lots (at trailheads) are filled.”

Memberss of Atalaya Search and Rescue participate in an exercise in Diablo Canyon outside Santa Fe in March 2007. (Jeff Geissler/For The Journal )

SFFD doesn’t have a designated SAR team, but with Fire Station 1 situated close to the Santa Fe National Forest, firefighters often assist with rescue operations, Assistant Chief Phil Martinez said. Usually, it’s a hiker on one of the trials in the foothills who gets lost or injured.

“Sometimes they go farther than they think and, before they get back, it gets dark,” he said.

It’s unclear what the unidentified man rescued last weekend was doing in the woods or why he decided to venture several hundred yards off the Windsor Trail.

Crunching numbers

The majority of SAR missions involve lost, missing, exhausted or injured hikers, according to the data Rodgers collected. But SAR teams also respond to calls involving hunters, sheepherders, mountain bikers, snowmobilers and skiers, people suffering from autism and dementia, and aircraft accidents.

Rodgers records the calls SAR teams in New Mexico have responded to that are reported to him, whether State Police were involved or not. He provided the Journal with data he’s collected through Aug. 18 of each of the past three years, broken down by the 12 State Police districts. He noted, however, that there surely are incidents handled by Bernalillo County Fire Department, for instance, and other agencies that don’t get reported to him and aren’t included in his data.

But based on the data he does have, already, in mid-August, the number of SAR missions in 2020 are approaching the year-end totals from the past two years.

“We typically average about 100 to 110 missions a year. We’ve already done 94 missions this year,” said Rodgers, counting the man rescued last weekend as the 94th.

That’s compared to 69 missions through the same date in 2018 and 71 over the same time period in 2019.

Save for a spike in missions in February this year, the numbers for the first three months of each year are consistent. But while Rodgers recorded 10 SAR missions in both April of 2018 and 2019, there were 15 this year. The number regressed to the mean in May, but has made a statistically significant jump in every month since then.

While there were 42 missions from Jan. 1 to Aug. 18 of 2018, and 45 between those dates in 2019, Rodgers recorded 62 to date in 2020.

Looking only at incidents involving hikers since April 1, the number of rescues nearly doubled from 21 last year to 39 this year. It was 28 in 2018.

Rodgers himself pointed out some other differences in the numbers.

“I’m seeing increases in the number of hikers at a time being rescued,” he said. “I’ve got five cases this year alone where the number of subjects we’re looking for is greater than three. Compared to last year, when we had one.”

Rodgers said that people hiking in groups that get lost tend to figure it out and get themselves back on track.

Another thing Rodgers tracks are deaths. He draws no conclusions about it, but there have been five recovery missions of deceased people so far this year. While the number of deaths is consistent over the past three years – five in 2018, six last year and five so far this year – four of the five deaths this year were categorized as “despondent,” meaning they likely committed suicide. That’s compared to just one such case last year.

Reduce your risk

As one might guess, regionally, most SAR missions take place in the most populated regions of the state, the Albuquerque District leading the way, followed by Santa Fe.

So far this year, there have been 24 SAR missions in the Albuquerque district and 21 in Santa Fe, accounting for nearly half of all missions in the state.

The vast majority of incidents involve just one person. And typically they aren’t lost, but in some form of distress.

It happens a lot on the La Luz trail or other trails in the Sandia Mountains, Rodgers said.

“The most common mistake that I’ve seen, especially under the hiker category, is they underestimate the terrain or their own capabilities,” he said, adding that often it’s inexperienced hikers or people from out of state not used to the elevation who succumb to exertion.

SFFD Assistant Chief Martinez said if you’re hiking alone, it’s always a good idea to tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to return. He also recommends making sure your cellphone – preferably one that has GPS – is fully charged before you go out.

The website for REI suggests taking energy food and plenty of water, especially on longer hikes.

While the coronavirus presents risks that people try to avoid by hitting the trail, Martinez warns that hiking can be risky, too.

“People should enjoy the outdoors,” he said. “It’s fun, but it can be dangerous.”

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