ST. GEORGE — Over the last year search and rescue operations have seen two notable changes in Washington County — the introduction of a locally-based public safety helicopter that has enhanced rescue efforts and an increasing diversity in the locations rescuers respond to.

Washington County Sheriff’s Sgt. Darrell Cashin shares 2023 end-up search and rescue numbers with the Washington County Commission, St. George, Utah, Jan. 16, 2023 | Photo courtesy of Washington County / CEC, St. George News

“I kind of knew the four or five areas we were going to end up going to to rescue people, that’s now gone, it’s pretty much anywhere, all over the county,” Washington County Sheriff’s Sgt. Darrell Cashin told St. George News, following a report given to the Washington County Commission recently.

Up until last year, Cashin — who oversees the Washington County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue team — said they could count on being called out to certain areas of the county more than others. This included the areas of the Bear Claw Poppy Trail, Sand Mountain, Water Canyon and Red Mountain, among others.

“There are no specific areas that get more rescues than others, which is a little bit of a change for us,” he said.

However, as recreation has continued to grow in the county, so have the numbers of people traveling to remote and previously lesser-known outdoor attractions. One particular spot Cashin mentioned was the trail leading to a geological formation near the Lower Sand Cove Reservoir called “the Vortex.”

“We had a lot these last year,” he said. “We’re getting these places that are popping up with more and more rescues.”

With recreators moving into the backcountry, Cashin said they need to remember to make appropriate preparations and let others know where they are going and when they intend to be back, along with other tips:

Plan ahead, especially for potential things that could happen such as accidents, taking longer and bad weather.
Wear appropriate clothes and make sure to have a jacket in case it gets dark and cold.
Have plenty of water.
Have a source of light other than a cell phone. Search and rescue prefer you use the cell for talking than as a light and draining the battery.
Get to know the area where you are going. Do the research on the hike or area.

Southern Utahns who find themselves in wilderness mishaps should also never hesitate or feel embarrassed about having the search and rescue team respond, Cashin added.

In this file photo, Washington County Search and Rescue responds to a fall incident at Gunlock Falls, Gunlock State Park, Utah, June 17, 2023 | Photo courtesy of Washington County Sheriff’s Office, St. George News

“You know, a lot of times people go, ‘I don’t want search and rescue,’” he said. “Well that’s what you’re going to get where you’re at. So we don’t want you to feel embarrassed or afraid to call, just call. If it’s not a big deal, great. We get you out. If it is end ends up being a bigger deal, great. We may have saved your life and we’re thrilled with that.”

Last year, the county’s search and rescue team responded to 140 incidents and aided 192 people. Of that number, 76 were from Washington County while 50 were from outside of the county but lived in Utah. The remaining 66. including one international visitor, came from outside of the state, according to Cashin’s report.

Washington County Commissioner Adam Snow asked Cashin how many people might have died last year if not for the county’s search and rescue team. Cashing estimated that number to be around 38-40.

“Either due to heat exhaustion, hypothermia, injuries — I’d have to say, to be realistic, maybe about 20% of them probably would not be alive,” he said.

As far as fatalities go, Cashin reported 2023 as more fortunate than other years such incidents. Generally, the search and rescue team respond to around 10-12 fatal incidents annually. Last year saw under five.

This file photo shows the Brad Coleman’s dirt bike in the slot canyon he fell into while riding in Warner Valley in March 2023. He was found the next morning by the Utah DPS Star 9 chopper the next morning, Washington County, Utah, March 13, 2023 | Photo courtesy of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, St. George News

Some of the credit for this was given to the Utah Department of Public Safety’s Southern Utah Aero Bureau and its Star 9 helicopter, which Cashin has previously called a “game changer” for local search and rescue efforts. He pointed out the helicopter’s million-dollar hoist in particular.

Not only does having an eye in the sky help with searches, the hoist aids greatly in the retrieval and transport of injured individuals, especially when time matters most.

“It a really a lot of manpower and time saved — time for those patients,” Cashin said. “And usually when they’re that critical, timing is everything. So having them (Star 9) down here, I know we’ve used them least two to three dozen times in multiple rescues. They’ve always been willing to come out. It’s been awesome having them here.”

Star 9’s use was highlighted in the rescue of Washington City Police Office Brad Coleman last March. Coleman had been riding his dirt bike in the Warner Valley area when he fell 15-20 feet into a slot canyon and was injured. He was reported missing later that day and found the following morning by Star 9 and hoisted out of the slot canyon to safety and waiting medical teams.

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