When help was needed last month searching for remains of the dead in the ash and rubble of burned-out homes, a small group of skilled volunteers stepped forward.
The 50-member Sonoma County Search and Rescue Team, which was activated in the early hours of the Oct. 8 Tubbs fire, played an integral part in the grim recovery effort. Over the next 10 days, the team recovered the remains of seven people and logged more than 1,100 volunteer hours.
The little-known group, whose work was thrust into the public eye by the fires, has seen a surge of interest since the disaster. An orientation Wednesday evening attracted more than 115 people, four times more than expected. Dozens submitted applications to join the nonprofit group organized by the Sheriff’s Office.
“Incredible, this is just incredible,” Sgt. Dave Thompson said as he looked over a standing room only crowd with a dozen or so people still waiting in a line out the door at the Sheriff’s Office.
“I guess this will be the first test. If they can’t stand for an hour then they’re probably not ready for Search and Rescue,” said Thompson, who runs the Search and Rescue Team.
Being a part of the sheriff’s volunteer squad takes a significant commitment of time, finances and physical effort, longtime member Steve Ellis said.
“It’s difficult to fit into your life,” Ellis warned potential recruits Wednesday. “Your family suffers right along with you.”
Prospective volunteers should seriously consider impacts on families and employers before applying for the team, Ellis said. Flexible work schedules and the support of family members are necessary because members of the team are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he said.
On the first night of the Sonoma County fires, which broke out before midnight Oct. 8, Search and Rescue Team members received their first call for service at 2:40 a.m. and seven people responded, Thompson said.
“I recognized we could use our team to free up other first responders,” Thompson said.
The group of seven set up a roadblock at Bicentennial and Mendocino avenues and worked it until reinforcements arrived in the morning, he said.
Team members who responded to subsequent callouts at 3:24 a.m. and 7:34 a.m. helped run the evacuation centers at Finley Community Center and the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, Thompson said.
Over the next 10 days, the Sonoma County volunteers with help from their counterparts from Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin and Monterey counties sifted through the ashes in search of bones and other human remains in Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, Larkfield-Wikiup and other areas, Thompson said.
In the final days before burn areas were opened to residents, the volunteer team swept through every affected neighborhood in the county, rescuing house cats, spotting gas leaks and making sure no human remains had been missed, Thompson said.
The application process for search and rescue crews is rigorous, with applicants undergoing nearly two years of interviews, background checks and training. Half of the applicants fail to pass the process, Thompson said
After applying, candidates are interviewed by a three-person panel of current volunteers. If selected, they must undergo a background check using the same standards as the one for potential sheriff’s deputies. Background checks can take more than six months as an applicant’s criminal and drug history are assessed, Thompson said.
Once a background check and physical exam are passed, new recruits start the hard work. The sheriff’s volunteer unit requires a two-year commitment. In the first year, volunteers are expected to attend every monthly meeting and monthly training. New members are also encouraged to take a first-aid course at Santa Rosa Junior College.
Recruits are required to purchase their own equipment with a price tag that easily exceeds $1,000 for an average supply kit used by veteran rescuers, Ellis said.
Monthly trainings are structured to refresh skills of long-term volunteers while also giving inexperienced members the fundamentals. Training includes lessons on ropes and rappelling, medical aid, canvassing urban neighborhoods and rummaging through poison oak and thorn bushes while recovering evidence in the forest.
While the extraordinary nature of the Sonoma County fires created extraordinary demands on first responders and search and rescue teams, Ellis notes that most calls do not involve such harrowing circumstances.
More than 50 percent of the team’s calls deal with people who are mentally ill or are suffering cognitive impairments, Ellis said. Twenty-nine percent of all search and rescue calls in Sonoma County are to locate dementia patients, 12 percent for people suffering from mental illness and 12 percent to local suicides, Ellis said.
Roughly 20 percent of calls are to help sheriff’s deputies locate evidence at a crime scene, he said.
“A lot of people think they’ll join search and rescue and look for lost hikers in one of Sonoma County’s parks,” Ellis said. “The last missing hiker we had was 10 years ago.”
You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @nrahaim.