The Last of Idaho’s Original Back-Country Volunteers

By JACK McNEEL

Roger Burnham has an amazing 42-year history of volunteering his time, knowledge, and energy with the Sheriff’s Department in such programs as Search and Rescue, the Dive Team, and Back Country Medical Rescue. The hours he has spent helping people in Idaho’s back country are astronomical, and all are performed without pay.

“I want to give back to the community, and this is one of the ways I can do it,” he commented.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone having volunteered more time to back country rescue.

Burnham lives in Orofino and has since he arrived with his parents in 1963. He owns a small construction company in Orofino, but his work through the Sheriff’s Department is 100 percent voluntary. “It costs me to be a volunteer,” he laughed, and explained that volunteers pay for their own gas and use their own tools in addition to being away from their regular jobs.

He began volunteering in search and rescue work “as a young pup” because other friends were doing the same thing, calling themselves “ground pounders.” In more recent years, the teams have become more specialized, with dog teams, snowmobile teams, ATV teams, a dive team, back country teams, and a horse team. “Everybody has their own specialty.”

Among other things, Burnham is the dive master in charge of all the diving for Clearwater County. “The sheriff’s office paid for my training, and basically all my work has been for the sheriff’s office during the past 34 years.”

This form of diving certainly isn’t for everyone. He estimated 90 percent is to recover bodies. “It’s not a fun job, but it’s a necessary job. You get satisfaction if you help the family find closure.”

Burnham is presently the only member of the dive team, but they’re working on getting others certified. “Over the years we’ve had some really wonderful people involved with this team. Whitewater work is our specialty and requires a lot of training,” he said. “Our diving is primarily in the Salmon, Lochsa, Selway, and Clearwater rivers.”

He estimated that over the years he’s been involved in recovering between 24 and 30 bodies. One of the first of those water recoveries was in 1987 when a DC-3 crashed in the Selway.

“The Forest Service was flying into Moose Creek. Apparently the left motor fell off the plane, and the DC-3 went down into Moose Creek,” he said. One person survived,
but the other 25 died. I was involved in
that recovery.”

Back-country search and rescue is fairly frequent many months of the year. It might be hikers or huckleberry pickers getting lost, or possibly hunters losing their way in the fall. Loggers also get hurt, and they have phone numbers to call for help. “With the helicopter we can basically be anywhere within 30 minutes,” Burnham explained, so medical help can arrive quickly, even in the back country.

He spends much of his time now in the helicopter or on an ATV during these back-country searches. Some turn out to be rather exciting. He told of one involving a fellow having an accident with a mule.

“We flew in a helicopter and used Idaho County Sheriff’s and Grangeville Mountain Rescue units. There were probably four different entities involved in that one rescue,” he said.

The Back Country Medical Rescue team was formed in 1978, one of four in the state: Pocatello, Boise, Orofino, and Coeur d’Alene. At that time, Orofino was the only team without paramedics, but they did have advanced EMTs. “We actually had more medical rescues than all three of the other teams combined,” said Burnham. “We’re also the only team still in existence. I was a charter member and the only original member from 41 years ago who is still active on a back-country team.”

During those early years, the teams all trained together. That included rope training, rock climbing,  and rappelling, and each group had at least training in emergency medical work.

Much of the work involves helicopters rather than ambulances, so helicopter safety training was also vital.

“It’s an ongoing training program,” Burnham explained. “We have a high rescue rope team right now and medics that fly with the helicopters. I’ve been up three times in just the last month on searches.” There is always at least one medic and someone good with ropes in these helicopter rescues.

Asked about rescues that stand out in his memory, Burnham mentioned two cases. “One involved a young lady who was injured with her husband and kids in the back country. It was too late in the day to use a helicopter, so we hiked in after dark. It took us six hours to get there,” he said. “We had a helicopter arrive in the morning after the fog lifted and flew her to a hospital in Missoula. There was a TV show called Wild Survival back then. They sent a production crew out and did a recreation for the TV show, so we all got to be on TV.”

“The other was a family: father, son, brother, and dad. The four were in a plane and crashed off Smith Ridge,” continued Burnham. He detailed how the grandpa and grandson survived the crash initially, crawled out of the plane, and curled up together. The mad died overnight, but the boy survived.

“We flew in the next morning and had a search team looking. We found him about a quarter mile away,” he said. According to the boy’s account, he had heard a logging operation and was crawling toward that operation when Burnham’s team found him, and they flew a physician in to help. “He had been there for a day and had some ungodly, unfortunate injuries,” said Burnham. Despite the injuries, the boy survived.

“I’ll never forget those two!”

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