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Byline: Andrea Damewood The Register-Guard

When University of Oregon professor Daming Xu vanished into the Cascade Mountains on a day hike on Nov. 4, search and rescue workers couldn't help but think of the man who perished in Oregon's icy wilderness less than one year before: James Kim.

As they found the 63-year-old Xu's car at the Olallie Mountain trailhead near Cougar Lake, the haunting image of the Kim family car stranded in snow on a remote road in the southern Coast Range flickered through their minds.

As they scanned the drainages along French Pete Creek - where they spotted half of a discarded trail guide, the only physical evidence of the Eugene resident found to date - they reflected on the discovery last Dec. 6, when 35-year-old Kim was found dead of hypothermia in Big Windy Creek four days after he left the car to find help for his wife, Kati, and his two daughters, Penelope, 4, and Sabine, 7 months.

Kati Kim and the girls survived, found Dec. 4 by a volunteer helicopter pilot who spotted the woman waving a pink umbrella next to their Saab on Bear Camp Road off Highway 42.

"There was not a lot said about the Kim search during this one, but it was on my mind," Lane County Search and Rescue Coordinator John Miller said.

Xu has yet to be found. Lane County crews are operating a recovery mission as weather allows.

Both hunts involved the combination of art and science that is wilderness search and rescue, Miller said. But they proceeded very differently.

The Kim search was hampered by a breakdown of command and communication between Malheur County sheriff's officials and other agencies, a review by officials determined. But Miller said the search for Xu - the largest in Lane County in at least a decade - was speedy and well-coordinated, benefiting from lessons learned from mistakes made one year before.

In the wake of the Kim tragedy, Gov. Ted Kulongoski in January appointed an 18-member Search and Rescue Task Force, which recommended sweeping changes to training, funding, search coordination and other aspects of rescue work. Some of those changes have been carried out. Some have not.

The review "has been a catalyst for moving on the important issues," said Klamath County Sheriff Tim Evinger, a task force member and chairman of the Oregon State Sheriff's Association Search and Rescue Advisory Council.

"Search and rescue is way better off in Oregon than it was a year ago."

But a new threat - the possible loss of annual federal money is looming.

Lane County Sheriff Russ Burger warned that the expected loss of federal timber payments funding to rural counties, including Lane, starting in July will cripple that newfound momentum. At least half the county's search and rescue budget of $287,000 would instantly disappear, he said.

"The fact that (search and rescue) has become such an important part of what we do is a good thing," Burger said.

"It sort of brings focus on the need to adequately fund and provide those services, particularly in a county such as ours where there's so much wilderness."

Hoping to preserve gains

Search and rescue in the state used to be "largely overlooked," Evinger said.

But the federal Secure Rural Schools and Communities Self-Determination Act of 2000 - which gives money to counties to compensate for the loss of taxes from timber sales - earmarked funds to compensate counties for searches they held on federal land, Evinger said.

During the past seven years, counties have been able to beef up their operations by training staff and buying vehicles.

That money will go away July 30 unless Congress renews it.

"The worry is sustainability," Evinger said. "If at some point we can't maintain the equipment, can't replace the equipment as it wears out, then we'll be right back where we were before."

Burger said county-sponsored search and rescue would continue "one way or the other," but might have to be scaled back to using patrol members to coordinate efforts. That means Miller, whom he credits with creating one of the best search and rescue programs in the state, would be out of a job.

Local and state officials are fighting to keep the federal money flowing.

"The loss of federal dollars is a huge area of concern for the governor," said Joseph O'Leary, chairman of the Governor's Search and Rescue Task Force.

Burger said he will travel to Washington, D.C., to lobby for continued search and rescue funding for counties.

"More than half of this county is wilderness and federal land," he said. "The federal government has some responsibility to help defray the cost of finding people who do get lost in the wild."

Miller, 57, has been in the search and rescue field for more than 20 years, and county coordinator since 1995. He earns $58,836 a year, and works unpaid overtime to preach wilderness safety and hold training for volunteers - both initiatives called for by the governor's task force.

The task force didn't designate any money for educating the public.

"If I could teach everybody to be safe that would be the perfect world for me," Miller said.

Just under $2,000 was set aside this year in the county budget to keep the county's staff and 180 volunteers trained at national standards - or $11 per volunteer, Miller said.

"That doesn't go far, does it?" he said. "(Our program) would fall on its face without these volunteers, and personally, I'd like to see the volunteers supported."

The state task force also called for increased training, insurance support and funding for state-level emergency coordination.

So far, none of that has happened.

At the state level, one of the biggest holes is a "dangerously out-of-date" communications infrastructure, O'Leary said.

One estimate said it would cost the state $665 million to create a public safety communications network, he said, but that did not take into account the existing infrastructure, which could significantly lower cost.

"Communication is absolutely critical in all emergency events," he said.

Reliable cell phone service and satellite e-mail wasn't set up on Olallie Mountain until the final two or three days of the Xu search, Miller said.

More coordination now

Communication gaps aside, when Daming Xu went missing last month, his rescuers still had a much better shot than did the crews that searched for Kim, Miller said.

Task force members said a law enacted earlier this year, requiring that a sheriff's department take charge of a rescue operation, was the largest leap forward.

During the Kim search, control bounced from the state police to several Malheur County officials, costing the effort valuable time, said Miller, who participated in a task force subcommittee. The new law "drives somebody to take responsibility for the mission," he said.

Furthermore, sheriff's search and rescue crews now work more closely with police, who investigate clues and motivation, and interview family and witnesses.

"In the Kim search, we learned that (was necessary) a little bit more: There were phone bills and receipts that needed to be followed up on," Miller said, adding that Eugene police were on the scene during the Xu search. "The investigation has to go on while the search goes on."

Also new to the crews' tool kit was a higher level of collaboration among neighboring counties.

The outpouring of offers of help via a newly created e-mail network for search and rescue coordination was "overwhelming," Miller said.

Before, Miller would have to call neighboring counties and ask for help - eating up search time when it is most critical.

Also, in the past year, coordinators have created five regions in the state in hopes of having those agencies train together, allowing developments to flow smoothly when "the big one" hits, he said.

Task force members also pushed for training in using cell phone "pings" to triangulate a person's location, something critical - but much delayed - in tracing the Kims.

Xu left for his five-mile day hike without a cell phone. But Miller said that training helped to save the life of a 38-year-old woman who crashed her car off Highway 101 on the Oregon Coast in April.

Not finding Xu has been "extremely frustrating," Miller said.

But using lessons from the Kim search and the task force made the mission a far better orchestrated one.
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Title Annotation:General News; Lessons learned after failed Kim search may suffer if funds disappear
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Dec 1, 2007
Next Article:State climate service seeking amateur rain gauge watchers.

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