Price tag for a search

This map shows the reported coordinates of search and rescue missions within Oregon from 2010 to present. Fewer people go missing in Malheur County than in some other parts of the state, but when searches are necessary, the county has to foot the bill. If a search lasts longer than a few hours, the cost can exceed the county’s budget.

VALE — Men account for more than 63 percent of people who have been reported missing in Oregon in the last five years. A recent search in Malheur County added to that trend.

The Malheur County Sheriff’s Office has wrapped up its investigation of a recent search and rescue operation in which teams discovered the body of Silas Wrigley, 69, in the Succor Creek area.

Wrigley had come to Malheur County on an extended fishing trip, and the search for him began shortly after his abandoned truck was discovered on a remote two-track road. The search began Aug. 22 and went through Aug. 29.

Though they aren’t able to prove it, investigators believe Wrigley was led astray by a GPS system, according to Sheriff Brian Wolfe. Based on information on that system, Wrigley appeared to have missed the turnoff to go to Lake Owyhee, Wolfe said. It looked like the GPS recalculated, and Wrigley followed the route.

“We caution folks to kind of have an idea of where you’re going, and once you’re on an unmaintained road, if something is not feeling or looking right, turn around,” Wolfe said.

Let people know where you’re going, and if you change your route, let them know how and why, he added.

“All those things are important,” Wolfe said.

State requirements

No matter what the cause of someone getting lost, search and rescue operations are a statutory requirement of each county sheriff’s office in Oregon, Wolfe said.

And while nobody is thinking about the cost while conducting a search, the fact is those missions are unfunded by the state; it is up to each county to come up with the money.

George Kleinbaum, who has been the state search and rescue coordinator for 21 years, said he believes that is an important aspect of the statute. He noted that counties can have differing search needs based on varying geography.

“This makes sure that a county with a healthier budget isn’t funding counties that have a more difficult budget,” he said.

Though he’s aware that some counties struggle to come up with money, Kleinbaum said he thinks this is the only way other counties won’t be responsible for another’s search and rescue missions.

The state has no money to pay for searches, he added. It doesn’t even pay for the volunteers’ initial mandatory trainings.

Malheur County Search and Rescue has between 80 and 100 volunteers. The budget allocates $6,000 each year to spend on search and rescue, and Malheur County averages about 12 to 15 searches per year. Most of those searches take about five or six hours.

In Wrigley’s case, it took an entire week, and out-of-pocket expenses exceeded the budget. The total out-of-pocket expenses were about $7,000 and included motel rooms, food and water, aircraft rentals and fuel.

But the overall cost of the search, when 989 man hours were taken into consideration, was $18,358.67.

While those man hours didn’t cost the county extra, they are counted in the overall cost.

“Let me be real clear that $11,300 of that cost was the cost that it would take to pay our full-time people who were already on the payroll,” Wolfe said.

The last time Wolfe can remember a search taking that long within Malheur County was about 17 years ago.

The only kickback the county receives from the state is reimbursement for aircraft fuels and oils. The Oregon State Sheriff’s Association has an advisory group that has mulled over how to get help from the state to pay for missions, Wolfe said.

They’ve talked about how to get a legislative adoption of some kind of fee tacked on to hunting licenses. But Wolfe said he has mixed feelings about that.

“Why make every hunter in Oregon pay an extra dollar when they aren’t the only ones you go searching for?” he asked

One group does pay a fee for search and rescue missions: pilots. That is thanks to pilot registration fees, which are used toward aviation assistance, Kleinbaum said.

Counties can send families or those rescued a bill for up to $500 after a search, but Malheur County doesn’t do that, Wolfe said. The county does, however, send a report that shows a breakdown of the costs.

Out of all the bills Malheur County has ever sent people, Wolfe could recall only one group that paid. That search was for high-school boys who got multiple vehicles stuck in the middle of a mud bog while four-wheeling in the desert.

Their parents made them pay off the bill.

“Those boys actually paid us, not the parents,” Wolfe said. “I think they taught great life lessons to those boys.

“We’ve been really lucky. It’s very seldom we have a search in Malheur County that we go into several operation periods,” Wolfe added.

An operation period in Malheur County is about 24 hours.

Local funding

In addition to the money allocated by the county each year, local volunteers work to find other ways to come up with money.

Volunteers with Malheur County Search and Rescue have a cook shack, Wolfe said. The majority of their money comes from sales of hamburgers from that shack at the Vale and Jordan Valley rodeos.

The volunteers do more than just raise money.

“Volunteers take their own equipment, vehicles and time to go find people when there is a mission,” Wolfe said. “They are very dedicated people and provide a great service in Malheur County.”

Donations have come in over time in the form of money or vehicles, even a camp trailer. While the donations are appreciated, Wolfe said, they typically don’t come anywhere close to the expenditure.

Searches can be costly, said Rod Knopp, coordinator for field operations for Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue, one of the agencies that assisted in the search for Wrigley.

Even so, Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue has a policy to not charge anyone for their assistance, Knopp said.

There is a general debate about the cost of searches, he said. There is talk on occasion about the value of volunteers in search and rescue.

“There is value there, but not necessarily a cost to society,” he said.

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