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Winter treks help prep Island search and rescue for busy season

Small Saanich Peninsula SAR team answers the call about 20 times a year

A Saturday afternoon spent in spitting rain and a balmy 9 C leading a woodland search for small trinkets is a day well spent for Chris Law.

He’s one of two managers with the Peninsula Emergency Measures Organization (PEMO) search and rescue team – one of the two guys who hid the trinkets for the dozen or so volunteers to seek out.

As he points out the three PEMO trucks parked at the Willis Point fire hall – packed with “all the things we need to find somebody and then rescue them” – his radio crackles as searchers report a find.

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PEMO SAR manager Chris Law shows the search so far, during training at Willis Point Fire Hall on Feb. 24. (Christine van Reeuwyk/News Staff)

The team is in the adjacent forest, dressed for potential inclement weather, rain gear, gators and hiking boots while carrying packs with whistles, air horns and the like. The SAR team – both the volunteers in the bush and running communications in the truck – ranges in experience from a few months to well beyond a decade.

PEMO itself dates back to the 1980s, Law said.

Though that was well before he started, he’s heard the history from original members, when it was a sort of disaster relief team for the communities of the Saanich Peninsula. Scouts helped out and it gave kids that sense of helping the community. That sentiment remains.

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“Everybody on our team does have the value of contributing to the community that we live in,” Law said.

It’s among the reasons he’s given seven – or eight, he’s not positive – years to the community. Plus it’s outdoors and there’s a sense of adventure to it.

The current PEMO SAR team is 20 to 25 members and includes members in training – brand new recruits this winter – certified ground search-and-rescue members and team leaders.

The leaders are seasoned searchers with leadership skills to run the assignments “in a safe way so that they do a good job searching and, No.1, make sure that the members come back safe, nobody gets hurt, nobody gets injured and everybody goes home to their families,” Law said. SAR manager tasks include interacting with the tasking agencies – most often police – planning out the search and sending the teams off with their leaders.

The team is supported by Sidney, Central Saanich and North Saanich, the area they generally cover. PEMO teams include SAR, emergency support services, communications and the Neighbourhood Emergency Preparedness Program. There are communications centres at each municipal hall and the SAR vehicles are often housed near Central Saanich municipal hall.

“We’re a small team in an area that doesn’t have big parks or big expanses of wilderness so we don’t have a lot of calls,” Law said.

Prior to 2020, there would be about 20 searches a year, either in their area or as mutual aid. Law recalls 23 tasks as the busiest year.

“COVID took a chunk out of stuff for us in an urban area,” he said. But that number rebounded to 18 last year.

They often provide (or call on) mutual aid, particularly with local teams in Metchosin and Juan de Fuca.

“Depending on what the search is we might need a lot more members than we have,” Law said, noting volunteers aren’t always all available.

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They called on their peers from Metchosin to help out with a Dec. 10, 2023 search near Durrance Lake.

It was a search that stood out for Sidney/North Saanich RCMP which tasked the search. Const. Tim Cosgrove later issued a public thanks to the Peninsula and Metchosin teams that searched for, and located a missing hiker.

The PEMO team was celebrating its Christmas party that night, he noted.

“Without hesitation, volunteers from PEMO and MSAR dropped everything and ventured out in the dark, cold, wet and windy night to assist in the search. It didn’t take long for the hiker to be reunited with his family. Besides being cold and wet he was otherwise in good condition,” Cosgrove said.

While that one stands out for Law as well, he finds it more common to remember the searches where you don’t find the person.

For example, the two significant Sooke searches for missing hiker Melissa McDevitt. While searchers did not locate the missing 38-year-old, her remains were found Dec. 6, 2023 near the Sooke Potholes. She’d been missing nearly a year.

“It was tough but I’m just glad that she was found,” Law said. “There’s nothing worse than not finding them.”

The key to finding clues starts with training.

And on a late winter Saturday, it means locating a yellow toy dinosaur.

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