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NORTH COUNTRY AT WORK: Forest rangers gear up to tackle growing number of backcountry emergencies

October 5, 2018
By ANDY FLYNN - Editor (aflynn@lakeplacidnews.com) , Lake Placid News

WILMINGTON - State Department of Environmental Conservation forest rangers are increasingly busy with searches and rescues, mostly in the Adirondack and Catskill parks, and throughout those emergencies, they maintain a frame of mind similar to the Boy Scouts. They're prepared.

Forest rangers are continually prepared to fulfill their duties - enforcement, fire management, education/outreach, and search and rescue - and they rely on their trucks to carry around all the equipment they need for the job.

"You know, our truck is like a big tool box," said DEC Forest Ranger Lt. Chris Kostoss. "We talk about that in this emergency kind of work a lot that you're using your tool box, which is really a collection of all your stuff but it's, more importantly, a collection of your experience."

Article Photos

A searcher makes his way through the snow on Algonquin Peak in December 2016 during a mission to find a lost couple. The man and woman were found after two days, alive.
(Photo courtesy of the DEC)

In April, Kostoss was promoted to the lieutenant's position, supervising forest rangers for the High Peaks zone (Zone C) within Region 5. That's the High Peaks Wilderness Area, one of the most remote areas of the state and the most popular hiking destination in the Adirondacks, home of the tallest mountain in the state, Mount Marcy, and the second tallest, Algonquin Peak. The number of hikers is rising, thanks in part to local, regional and state marketing efforts, and the number of searches and rescues is also rising, especially in the High Peaks.

In 2017, the DEC reported that forest rangers conducted 346 search-and-rescue missions - 177 searches, 147 rescues and 22 recoveries. The vast majority of them were from hiking, and 82 percent were on state lands.

That was down slightly from 2016, when there were 357 missions; however, the number has grown over the past 50 years. There were 130 in 1967, 202 in 1977, 253 in 1987, 251 in 1997 and 223 in 2007.

With the number of annual search-and-rescue missions now exceeding 300, forest rangers are getting a lot of emergency experience. And that means they need a variety of tools and equipment readily available. That's when they turn to their trucks.

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Tools of the trade

One of the essential tools in a forest ranger's truck is a chain saw in sharp, good running condition.

"We end up using that tool quite a bit," Kostoss said. "It's not uncommon for a ranger to just be driving down the road and be the first one on the scene of a huge oak tree across the road."

Then there are forest firefighting tools, such as flame-resistant clothing, a fire rake, a Pulaski (combination axe and adze in one head), an axe and a bladder bag fire pump.

The mountain rescue equipment includes a variety of backcountry clothing to stay warm and dry; rock- and ice-climbing gear such as ropes, ice axes, crampons and ice screws; skis and snowshoes; truck rope; a variety of boots for different conditions; and a litter or Stokes basket to carry a person to safety.

"People always want to know, 'How do you carry somebody out of the woods?' And I can tell you, it's not easy," Kostoss said. "Unless they're 100 pounds, soaking wet, it's just not an easy task. It takes a lot of people, hands on the litter, and we simply put them in it, secure them, make them as comfortable as we can and carry them out."

The Keene Valley fire department has a backpack carrier system - a set of four external frame packs - that it lets the forest rangers use to carry a litter along a trail. Bars are secured between the front and back carriers - two people in front and two in back - and straps are placed from one side to the other, helping support the litter.

For helicopter rescues, a select group of forest rangers is trained to be helicopter crew chiefs. Equipment needed for that job includes a yellow aviation helmet, harness and carabiners.

"We collaborate with the state police in their aviation unit," Kostoss said. "They supply the helicopter and the pilot, and we have a crew chief or hoist operator who flies in the helicopter with them, helps them guide the ship to the right place with local knowledge and GPS."

For rescues on the water, forest rangers use equipment such as an inflatable kayak, extra PFDs, a cold-water survival suit (aka a Gumby suit) and a throw bag - a bag of rope thrown to a person in the water.

Standard equipment includes a compass, GPS unit, maps, first-aid kit, ticket book for enforcement, a bullet-proof vest and a sidearm. Kostoss carries a Sig Sauer 40-caliber, semi-automatic pistol.

"I would say that the vast majority of our enforcement takes place in the form of education, which is nice because people like that," Kostoss said. "They like being educated, but they're not always so happy when they're given a ticket."

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Emergency highs and lows

Kostoss says there are highs and lows when it comes to search-and-rescue missions, the highs coming when a search turns into a successful rescue and the lows coming when a search turns into a recovery.

Kostoss has had his share of both. A forest ranger for almost 20 years, he was first stationed in Dutchess County. He remembers his first search, working with Region 3 Forest Ranger David Meade, who was the incident commander.

"I remember just being in awe at the control he had over this enormous group of volunteers and police and fire and how well the mission went off," Kostoss said. "It was an Alzheimer's subject and they were located while I was there by a different crew, so it was exciting."

After a brief stint in Region 3 and three years in Clinton County, he moved to the High Peaks region. He now lives in Wilmington.

Kostoss got his share of action as incident commander during the most dramatic search-and-rescue mission of 2016. A young couple from his hometown of Niskayuna got lost on Algonquin Peak on Dec. 11 and were found alive on the mountain two days later. There were near blizzard conditions at the time, and the state police helicopter could not be used for the search. It was up to searchers on the ground.

"They were prepared for a full day's work in that environment, meaning we would get them as high on the mountain as we could with snowmobiles," Kostoss said. "And then they would hike from there to the summit. And then there were various assignments - checking drainages and sides of the mountain with crews of people. So they were prepared for nearly Arctic expeditions."

Kostoss worked the incident from the command post at the Adirondack Mountain Club's trails crew cabin at the Adirondak Loj. There was no cellphone service, so that had to be brought in overnight along with computer lines.

The forest rangers and volunteers in the field were equipped for the harsh, winter conditions.

"We brought in teams of rangers and teams of troopers and volunteer climbers that were fit enough to operate in that environment for long enough to be able to find them. That was how they were found," Kostoss said. "We had some really good cellphone data, and we were able to kind of figure out what drainage we thought was the highest possibility drainage, and luckily searchers in that area heard them and the helicopter was able to make an extrication there with a cable hoist."

The mission was a success - a "high" as Kostoss calls it - but he says it was also a "low," even though there weren't any major physical injuries.

"I was confident we would find them, but at the same time, the entire family was there, and their emotional energy of it is difficult to deal with. It's kind of a low part of the job where you're dealing with people who are potentially going to lose loved ones."

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Most important tools

Kostoss says there's not one piece of equipment that forest rangers use that's more important than any other when it comes to search-and-rescue missions, yet there are aspects of the job that are essential.

"I think the most important tool that the rangers have is not something you can physically handle. It's experience. And I think that's something that you can't buy, you can't read a book and get. It's something that takes time, and that's the only way you can get experience is by doing it."

As the senior forest rangers move toward retirement, Kostoss says their job now is to pass along their experience to the recruits fresh out of the SUNY Ranger School. For those without experience, training becomes a necessary part of the job.

"There's a saying in this industry that 'you never do something in an emergency that you haven't trained for.' So, as you can imagine, it takes a ton of training to keep up on all of this stuff here," Kostoss said, pointing to the piles of equipment spread on the floor of the Wilmington firehouse.

Another important aspect of the job is collaboration with other agencies - police, fire, Homeland Security and state police. It's not only helpful to share equipment; it's also a benefit to have people in the emergency service community support each other when they experience the emotional lows.

"I think in a worst-case scenario, you seek professional help. ... Over the course of your career, there's so much emotional drain and physical drain that it's something that you have to address. And I don't claim to be an expert on it, but what there's no one solution to it but it's certainly something that if you don't maintain it, it's going to catch up with you."

Kostoss says a search-and-rescue mission is a team effort. With a growing number of incidents every year and the forest ranger staff staying steady at 134 statewide, they need help.

"We don't do this stuff alone," Kostoss said. "It's important for people to realize, as much stuff as I have here, it's still not enough and we can't do our job alone, so we rely on all other state agencies, volunteer fire departments to work as a team on the big events and come together."

(This story comes to you from North Country Public Radio's North Country at Work project, which explores the working lives and history of our region. To see all the stories, check out www.northcountryatwork.org/.)

 
 

 

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