B.C. and Alberta-based cave rescue service seeks provincial funds

A B.C. and Alberta-based cave rescue service says it's hard to sustain its service without ongoing public funding.

'You don't need us very often, but when you do need us, you'll need us in a hurry,' says service spokesman

A group of volunteer rescuers participate in a training session at Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park on Vancouver Island. (Alberta/British Columbia Cave Rescue Service/Facebook)

A B.C. and Alberta-based cave rescue service says the dramatic mission to save a team of young soccer players trapped in a Thailand cave underscores the costly nature of the resource-intensive service.

Doug Munroe, provincial coordinator for Alberta/British Columbia Cave Rescue Service, says he's relieved at the outcome of the Thai rescue. But Munroe said cave rescues are expensive and require highly-trained personnel.

"You don't need us very often, but when you do need us, you'll need us in a hurry and you'll need hundreds of volunteers and you'll need lots of specialized equipment and specialized training, as you've seen in Thailand," Munroe said. 

There have have incidents in B.C. and Alberta in recent years where hikers exploring caves have fallen into pits, he said. In other instances, explorers have become stuck in flooded cave passages similar to the incident in Thailand.

The group had entered the sprawling Tham Luang cave to go exploring after soccer practice on June 23, but monsoon rains soon filled the tight passageways, blocking their escape. They were found by a pair of British divers nearly 10 days later, huddled on a small, dry shelf just above the water.

"We have the potential in B.C. for an event like we've just seen in Thailand," Munroe said. "Our deepest cave is almost 700 metres deep. The longest cave, on Vancouver Island, is 13 kilometres, and if we had to evacuate somebody from there, it will be a similar logistical challenge."

Limited funding

He said there are a number of financial strains on the group.

The volunteers in his group, which number around 200, must pay for their own training. And the group has not qualified for some provincial public grants.

As well, he said the group did not receive money distributed by the B.C. Search and Rescue Association because it wasn't considered "a ground search and rescue group."

Munroe said the provincial government reimburses the group for limited operational expenses when it responds to a request for assistance from the RCMP or the B.C. Ambulance Service, but this covers a small fraction of the costs to sustain the group's efforts. 

He said the group would need between $10,000 to $15,000 each year to operate a "world class cave rescue service."

On July 8, the Alberta/British Columbia Cave Rescue Service sent a letter to Emergency Management B.C., highlighting its needs and requesting funding.

"Our concern is that if we get overlooked much longer, we won't be there when we're needed."

Emergency Management BC sent CBC News a statement saying it had received the letter, and recognized search and rescue groups as a "critical resource in B.C." The statement did not address the group's funding request.

With files from Rafferty Baker

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