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March 3, 2024

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Silver Star Search and Rescue searching for rescue

Washougal won’t renew agency’s lease, forcing pursuit of new home

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
18 Photos
Rick Blevins, Silver Star Search and Rescue coordinator, discusses the volunteer organization's history and future at its headquarters on A Street. The city has said it needs the space for other things and will not renew the group's lease.
Rick Blevins, Silver Star Search and Rescue coordinator, discusses the volunteer organization's history and future at its headquarters on A Street. The city has said it needs the space for other things and will not renew the group's lease. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

WASHOUGAL — In between missions, the members of Silver Star Search and Rescue do their own equipment repairs. That’s fitting, since most of Silver Star’s gear is the personal property of the members of this all-volunteer, driven-by-donations agency.

The equipment — eight snowmobiles, utility terrain vehicle, heavy-duty pickup, multiple trailers, much more — fills a three-bay, 3,100-square-foot building alongside Washougal police and fire department headquarters on A Street. A command bus is parked in back.

Sixteen of the 28 current members of Silver Star Search and Rescue are “very active,” according to Tom Hansen, the group’s vice president. They’re the ones who snap into action when summoned by local law enforcement to help locate lost or injured people. Missions usually involve hikers, climbers, skiers, horseback riders and foragers in the wilderness in Skamania County and on the south side of Mount St. Helens. Silver Star also searches urban areas for missing or at-risk people — especially children — and occasionally assists crime-scene investigations by hunting for weapons or other evidence.

But Silver Star is searching for a new home. That’s not a surprise, said the group’s president, Wade Oxford. The city of Washougal, which owns the land where the building sits, warned Silver Star six years ago that its 20-year, $1-per-year lease would not be renewed when it expires in October 2023. The city sent official notice again last year.

Recent Missions

Summaries from Silver Star Search & Rescue missions

2021

Feb. 11: Transported PeaceHealth staff as part of Nurse’s Net for four days during winter snow and ice storm

May 22: Rescued two riders and one horse on Silver Star Mountain

May 23: Rescued injured horse on Silver Star Mountain

June 20: Litter carryout on Dog Mountain (canceled en route)

July 21: Found missing trail runner deceased at Coldwater Lake

Aug. 1: Searched for evidence in Skamania County case

Aug. 7-9: First-aid standby for Dark Divide 100-mile race

Aug. 17: Rescued injured hiker at Falls Creek Falls

2020

May 2: Found missing utility-terrain-vehicle rider at Jones Creek

May 18: Found lost hiker in Sleeping Beauty area

May 25: Found lost hiker near Carson

May 28: Found and deactivated an emergency locator transmitter at Pearson Field

June 20: Found missing Alzheimer’s patient near Yacolt area

Aug. 5: Rescued injured hiker on Dog Mountain

Aug. 25: Rope rescue of injured hiker near Willard

Sept. 6: Found two lost hikers near Randle

Sept. 6: Rescued injured hiker on Dog Mountain

Sept. 10: Evacuation standby support for Trapper Creek Fire

Sept. 18-19: Search for missing 16-year-old in Cowlitz County who was not found

Washougal faces a space squeeze, especially as it prepares to repurpose some downtown offices as recreation space in a new “civic campus” alongside the public library, according to City Manager David Scott.

“We are getting stretched in our existing facilities, especially in Public Works and at the police station next door to this building, so we basically need the space,” Scott said by email.

Washougal is assessing whether the Silver Star building can be repurposed as office space or must be demolished, he said.

Oxford said he’s been discussing the need for a new base for Silver Star with anyone who endorses its mission and has some surplus real estate to donate or lease out at a bargain-basement rate.

Moving east into Skamania County could make sense, Oxford said. But Silver Star’s current location at the mouth of the Columbia River Gorge has always been handy, he said. The group wishes it could stay in the building it built itself, with donations of dollars and labor, in the early 1980s.

As it prepares to move, Silver Star also seems to be facing a steep decline in calls for help. A scan of mission reports, posted on the agency website, shows a pandemic drop-off that has not recovered. After heading out on about two dozen missions, year-round, in previous years, the crew responded to just 12 missions in 2020 and 10 in 2021. The only winter outing was helping nurses report to work at local hospitals during snowy weather in February 2021.

“During the pandemic, things absolutely started drying up as far as call-outs went,” Hansen said. “At times, chunks of the forests (were) being closed down. … Our team expected an influx of calls once things started opening back up, but that never happened.”

Beaver built

Silver Star Search and Rescue launched in 1963 as a CB radio club that worked with local law enforcement when asked. That grew into a motivated, trained group of several dozen volunteers who provided hands-on help in the field, said longtime member and current operations coordinator Rick Blevins.

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The group was based at a former gas station in Camas when Washougal City Councilor Dick Beaver and a friend started a grassroots push to raise money for a new building.

“Cost of the new building is estimated at about $38,000,” The Columbian wrote in 1984. “Money has been raised through donkey basketball games, potlucks, spaghetti feeds and an assortment of other fundraisers.”

At age 71 and after triple-bypass heart surgery, Beaver himself labored on the building through the winter of 1984. He died in 1986. Today he’s commemorated with his own adjacent green space, Dick Beaver Park.

“I’m exceptionally proud of (the Silver Star building),” Beaver told The Columbian in 1984. “It wouldn’t have gotten done without me.”

Bringing them home

Just a few weeks ago, Silver Star assisted Skamania County EMS with a rope rescue.

“A gentleman … was walking on a trail on private land and he slipped down a steep embankment, about 20 feet. EMS had a first responder go there and figure out exactly what he needed,” Blevins said. “He needed to be extracted. With everybody working as a large team, we were able to get him out of there.”

He may have fallen 20 vertical feet, but hauling him carefully back up in a basket was a slow uphill drag of about 85 feet that took a lot of muscle power, Blevins said.

Last fall, a couple backpacking in the Indian Heaven Wilderness of Skamania County got separated and the wife got lost. The husband did the right thing, Blevins said. Rather than start searching off the trail and risk getting lost, he moved toward cell service and called for help.

Silver Star volunteers who happened to be training nearby rendezvoused with law enforcement and started canvassing the area, stopping every 15 minutes to blow loud whistles and shout the woman’s name in unison. But because of fiercely blowing wind, Blevins said, the woman never heard them (or saw their lights) until morning, when the wind died down.

“We found her and escorted her back to her husband,” Blevins said.

Silver Star’s least exciting missions are helping hikers out of jams, he said.

“We get more than a few call-outs that are not searching for anyone. They just need to be extricated,” Blevins said.

Dog Mountain, the super-steep Columbia River Gorge hike, is a regular source of calls about people who have sprained ankles or broken bones at high elevations and simply need to be helped down, Blevins said.

Another seasonal Silver Star project sounds mundane. Yet it may make the biggest difference of all to our community. When snow and ice make driving on local roads dangerous, Silver Star volunteers form Nurse’s Net, chauffeuring medical personnel to and from their work at local hospitals.

“This winter, with Nurse’s Net, I made 241 transports and drove 2,400 miles,” Blevins said.

Those are the relatively easy outings that let Silver Star volunteers look back and smile, he said. But occasionally, missing people — even children — turn up badly injured, dead or are never found at all.

“It is frustrating. It is disappointing,” Blevins said. “Our one purpose is to bring loved ones back home. There’s nothing worse than not being able to return a child to their family.”

Unpredictable

Some Silver Star volunteers work for employers who embrace their extracurricular missions and don’t mind irregular absences. Some even keep paying their wages. Other volunteers must juggle firm work schedules and unpredictable, uncompensated calls to head for the hills. Not every volunteer can make every mission.

“During the workweek it can be hard to get volunteers,” Blevins said.

While Silver Star volunteers come from all walks of life, many members of the group are active, outdoorsy guys with prior first-responder or military experience. There are three levels of participation: base support, novice field responder and field-qualified responder.

To be fully field-qualified responders, volunteers must train in everything from search-and-rescue and wilderness survival techniques to first aid and CPR.

“It’s a really cool mix,” said Hansen, the group’s vice president. “The one thread we all have is a love of nature and a love of the community. Everybody brings a certain level of skill and some core competencies. And then we train a lot. We do have fun doing this.”

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