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Originally published March 29, 2014 at 8:00 PM | Page modified March 31, 2014 at 12:18 AM

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Helicopter rescue team could disappear after big funding cut

The Snohomish County Helicopter Rescue Team, which played a heroic role after last Saturday’s deadly mudslide, is trying to raise money to make up for a deep funding cut that has put its future in jeopardy.


Seattle Times staff reporter

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The Mountaineers Program Center

7700 Sand Point Way NE in Seattle

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As horrific as last Saturday was, the residents along Highway 530 did benefit from a remarkable stroke of luck: at the moment the mudslide hit, one of the Pacific Northwest’s only helicopter rescue teams was training just 25 miles away.

The team arrived less than an hour later and quickly saved several residents, including 4-year-old Jacob Spillers, whose rescue captured on video has gone viral.

But if tragedy strikes again next year, the team may not be around to help.

The Snohomish County Helicopter Rescue Team, one of just two nonmilitary rescue teams in the state, has for months been working to raise $150,000 to make up for a deep funding cut triggered by the expiration of a federal timber tax last year.

The 31-person team is mostly made up of volunteers, although five leaders are paid a collective $450,000 or so through the county sheriff’s office.

The additional $150,000 is needed for maintenance, gas and insurance for the team’s two helicopters, SnoHawk 1 and SnoHawk 10.

“If they don’t have that funding and this happens next year, they wouldn’t be there to help,” said Kristina Ciari of The Mountaineers, an outdoor-education nonprofit that is helping raise money for the helicopter rescue team.

The team is often called in to save hikers, climbers and others hurt or stranded in the Cascades. It performs about 80 rescues of different types each year.

“We can’t let this valuable resource — and currently free resource for anyone who’s rescued — we can’t let it go away,” Ciari said.

The Mountaineers group is hosting a dinner and auction at its headquarters in Seattle on April 19 — the first formal fundraiser the helicopter rescue team has ever had. The goal is to raise about $75,000, Ciari said.

The fundraising effort, called Support The Last Resort, has also included T-shirt sales, suggested donations at wilderness events and the development of a special type of beer made by a Bellingham brewery.

The team has sought to use the Oso mudslide to raise awareness, releasing the video of the rescue of the 4-year-old with a message directing viewers to its website.

Members of the rescue team declined to comment for this story, saying they were focused on the mission at hand.

Supporters said the fundraising campaign has gained steam because the team is unique.

Mike Senchyna, a retired battalion chief for the Vancouver Fire Department, said the only other nonmilitary rescue team in either Washington state or Oregon is a King County team whose paid members are not all medically trained.

Senchyna, who said he participated in rescue operations after the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, said helicopter rescue resources are even thinner today than they were then, in part because of military budget cuts.

“It’s really a stunning lack of capability that we have,” said Senchyna, noting that the public thinks there are many more helicopter rescue teams than there actually are.

“There’s just truly nothing else like” the Snohomish County team, he said.

In May 2012, the team earned attention when it rescued hiker William Hickman, 13, of Burien, from a ledge just feet from 265-foot Wallace Falls north of Highway 2 near Gold Bar, also in Snohomish County.

Last Saturday, the team was training at Taylor’s Landing Search and Rescue Facility in Snohomish, chief pilot Bill Quistorf said at a Wednesday news conference.

SnoHawk 10, a Bell Helicopter UH-1H, was the first helicopter to arrive at the scene, of the slide, Quistorf said. It arrived around 11:30 a.m., 45 minutes before a Navy helicopter got there.

All rescues were conducted within the first three hours, Quistorf said.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal



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