COVID-19 could draw record numbers to the backcountry, where risks range from fire to bears to rushing waters
The dangers in the backcountry range from rushing water to wildfire to hungry and curious bears.
As local safety officials brace for what could be a record-breaking season of outdoor recreation amid the COVID-19 pandemic, they are asking people heading to the woods to exercise a bit more caution than normal to avoid burdening first responder resources.
“Any one person who exercises good common sense, stops and thinks for a moment, could help us tremendously,” said Lt. Alan Siddoway, the Summit County Sheriff’s liaison to Summit County Search and Rescue. “Do you really need to drive through that snow drift 15 miles from pavement? Those kinds of calls, where people could use more discretion, we would greatly appreciate that.”
Siddoway said he’s heard the numbers of people driving on the Mirror Lake Highway have rivaled summer weekend numbers, unusually busy for this time of year.
“Statewide calls for service are up,” he said. “We’re bracing for — can’t base this on any data, just years of experience — we’re bracing for a busy summer.”
With locals cooped up because of the pandemic and vacationers reluctant to fly, Siddoway predicted record numbers of people will head to the county’s outdoor spaces this year.
While the draw of nature calls to many, dangers exist amid the beauty, and first responders are usually miles away.
Snowmelt runoff in the area’s rivers peaked at the end of May, about two weeks earlier than last year, said Glen Merrill, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City. While the spring has been unusually dry — April and May were some of the driest on record — cold, rushing water presents a danger, with people drawn to water as the temperatures rise.
“It’s not stuff you want to mess around with,” Merrill said of fast and cold rivers. He added that the year’s snowpack has largely melted and that any surge in floodwaters would be tied to a precipitation event like a rainstorm.
Merrill said the Weber and Provo rivers at the end of May were running around average flow, though lower than last year’s levels.
Daniel Jauregui, district ranger for the Heber-Kamas District of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, said it’s common to see accidents around cold rushing water.
“In the springtime we do have accidents like that — (people) slip and fall in, or a dog will get too close (and people will) want to get in there and want to save it. That is just something that always happens this time of year,” he said.
Jauregui added that he’s seeing increased visitor numbers in the national forest, likely related to the people having to stay inside because of the pandemic.
Fire officials said this year’s season appeared to be shaping up to be an average one, though high winds and lack of humidity in April and May could prove dangerous. Summit County Fire Warden Bryce Boyer said the wet and cool beginning to June might lower the risk for a week or two.
He cautioned campers to make sure campfires are “cold out” before leaving them, even to go to bed or to go for a hike.
That was a point echoed by Park City Fire District Battalion Chief Mike Owens.
“If you can’t put your hand in it, it’s too hot, (you) shouldn’t leave it,” Owens said. “Any time you leave a campsite, put it completely out. You don’t want to be burning even campfires when there’s high winds. Any time there’s a fire it has to be watched all the time.”
Owens and Boyer both stressed the danger posed by winds, with Boyer advising campers to have smaller fires and to keep an eye on where the embers fly, especially when the weather is windy.
Jauregui asked campers to be careful with their food and trash around campsites and to try to keep areas clean.
“Didn’t have a bear hunt this year — lot more bears (this year),” Jauregui said. “As soon as they start getting into camps, they’re going to be a big hassle, too. That’s going to be a problem if people are messy.”
Siddoway asked those heading out into the wilderness to exercise caution to help avoid stressing Search and Rescue resources, which are under further strain because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Every time we go out, there’s a risk,” he said.
Search and Rescue has tried to limited the number of responders when the situation allows to expose the fewest team members possible to the virus. So far, no members have been infected, he reported.
“Just don’t take unnecessary risks,” he asked outdoor enthusiasts. “Becoming stuck in the snow may not be a significant risk to your health and welfare, (but) it generates a call for service on our system. And if we have team members go down with COVID, the next call that comes in that may require special skills or the whole team, our team members are impacted.”
When heading into the backcountry, Siddoway advised people to always prepare for changes in the weather and for the possibility they’ll have to spend the night, and to tell loved ones specifically where they are headed and when they’ll be back to give Search and Rescue a head start on a potential search.
That means bringing proper clothing, extra water and a way to start a fire. He also advised people to bring a light source and a whistle to signal to potential searchers and to consider purchasing a GPS unit. Even if a lost person’s cellphone has no service, he said that keeping it on or turning it on periodically enables searchers to try different techniques like flying overhead with a device that can ping the phone.
He also asked people who get lost to remember that they are not alone.
“(They) need to know also that we’re coming for them. If they’re reported missing or overdue, there will be a SAR response,” he said. “Whether you believe it’s for you or not, get out and try to signal that helicopter, try to signal that plane, listen, the searchers are going to be calling for you, blowing whistles. Look for lights on ridges, that kind of thing. We’re going to be coming for you.”
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