Alberta search and rescue crews busy as incidents on the rise this year

Search and rescue crews are asking Albertans to prepare for exploring the outdoors as they experience an increase in calls, which are responded to by many volunteers.

On Tuesday, crews were called to Crescent Falls, 26 kilometres near Nordegg, Alta., when three family members drowned after swimming at the bottom of the popular waterfall.

While the tragedy is the worst case scenario, search and rescue crews are busy in the area this summer.

“I think Rocky Mountain House and some of the teams along the eastern slopes [of the Rocky Mountains] are seeing more severe events and certainly an increase in July and August,” said Monica Ahlstrom president of Search and Rescue [SAR} Alberta.

According to numbers shared by Ahlstrom, search and rescue incidents are already higher than the year prior.

From January to the end of August of 2019, there were 129 search and rescue incidents. So far this year, there’s already been 193 incidents, while two weeks still remain in August, which is usually the busiest month for first responders.

She suspects a higher volume of people exploring Alberta’s outdoors due to the pandemic is leading to an increase in incidents.

“Everybody was staying home due to COVID, but I think people aren’t able to go to some of the other places they would normally go like maybe to British Columbia or overseas.”

She said with people vacationing at home they are seeing a higher number of incidents.

Along Pigeon Lake near Mulhurst Bay, Alta. the bodies of two people were found along the shoreline, which RCMP referred to as a possible drowning.

Wayne Benson. South Pigeon Lake Fire and Rescue chief, says drownings are rare along the lake, and it’s the only time this year that an incident resulted in any deaths on the lake.

But he says he’s noticed a substantial increase in lake use this year, and rescue crews have responded to more calls than usual this summer.

“The big thing that we’re really noticing is the lack of preparation that has been very poor on the part of a lot of people we have to rescue,” Benson said. “And secondly so many people are not wearing their life jackets and if you don’t wear a life jacket you run into an issue. That’s the biggest cause of the drownings in Alberta.”

Preparation and education is also a focus for Ahlstrom, as she appreciates more people are experiencing the Rocky Mountain areas for the first time around Nordegg and Rocky Mountain House.

Although she says crews have been able to keep up with calls, a heavy increase in volume will have an impact on volunteers who respond to need for help.

“These are everyday folks who are going out there giving their time to respond to these incidents, and while we receive some funding for our expenses we really are a true volunteer organization,” she said. 

“So they’re just average people who go out every day to you know in some cases at considerable risk to help the people who’ve gotten in trouble and so keep that mind when search and rescue in Alberta shows up outside of that you know the major parks. It’s a volunteer who’s there.”

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