British Columbia

Who should pay for backcountry search and rescue?

Victoria journalist Jeff Davies examined the long-running debate over whether people who wander out of bounds in British Columbia's backcountry should pay the costs of their own rescue.

Journalist finds volunteer rescue low-cost, high value for wilderness tourism sector

North Shore Rescue was involved in 139 rescue operations in 2015.

It's the time of year when the risks are even higher for people who become lost in the woods, mountains and ski hills around B.C.

And when they do, search and rescue volunteers around the province will often risk their own lives to save another.

Victoria journalist Jeff Davies examined the long-running debate over whether people who wander out of bounds should pay the costs of their own rescues.

"It seems to rage in the media, in social media in particular" Davies told On the Island host Gregor Craigie. "Every time there's a high-profile rescue, every time there's a tragedy in the backcountry, every time somebody gets buried under an avalanche."

Davies wrote about the costs and benefits of the province's volunteer SAR network in the current issue of Coast Mountain Culture Magazine.

North Shore Rescue members in training for swift-water rescues: Journalist Jeff Davies found much of the B.C. Search and Rescue budget goes to training and equipment. (Jeff Davies)

In his article, titled "Delivering Us From Evil", Davies said the profile of the typical rescue subject is not, as commonly assumed, an irresponsible out-of-bounds skier, "costing us a bundle (and) draining our economy". 

For North Shore Rescue, the province's busiest volunteer SAR group, only two of the 139 rescue operations last year involved out-of-bounds skiers. Province-wide, they represented about three percent, he said.

Out-of-bounds skiers not the problem 

"They are not the ones driving search and rescue. They are not the ones driving the cost," Davies said. 

Most NSR rescues were for hikers lost or injured on the many marked and legal trails in the North Shore mountains.

Another category of rescue is for "urban walkaways" including lost children, seniors with dementia  and "desperate youth". 

"When I started following this issue I was struck by the fact that every week there was another missing senior."  

Journalist Jeff Davies found most people who need rescue don't fit the stereotype of reckless out-of-bounds skiers.

Davies said rescue volunteers agree that people who are rescued should not be charged user fees because it would delay calls for help and increase the risks for both rescuers and people in peril.

Volunteer Search and Rescue cost $9.4 million across B.C. last year, Davies said, with most of the money going to training and equipment.

The remaining $4-million in response costs, he said, were nearly covered by money received in sponsorships, fundraising donations and gaming grants. 

If rescue services were provided by staff paid at the rate of RCMP constables, he said, the cost would be closer to $50 million. 

Wilderness tourism industry benefits 

"Frankly, the rescues are costing taxpayers very little, and the benefits are great," he said.

"Wilderness recreation and wilderness tourism is a very big economic driver, a multi-billion-dollar industry in B.C."

Davies, an avid fisherman, knows how quickly a casual day trip can turn into a search and rescue operation — he nearly became the focus of one himself when his canoe hit a log on the Cowichan River. He and a friend were uninjured but lost all their gear.

By the time they managed to hike out to the road, they discovered that Cowichan Search and Rescue had been alerted that they were overdue.

To hear the full interview with CBC Radio One On the Island go to "Who should pay for backcountry search and rescue?"