The Value of InReach

Wandering Sagebrush

Free Range Human
Site Team
Nov 17, 2013
Northeast Oregon
A NE Oregon Emergency


UNION & WALLOWA COUNTIES — (Release from Union County Search and Rescue) In the early morning hours of Wednesday, June 14th, 2023, a party of eight rafters was camped along the bank of the Grande Ronde River approximately 5 miles downstream of the confluence of Wallowa and Grande Ronde Rivers in Union County when the top of a large dead tree fell and landed on two occupied tents, impacting and injuring three people. The tree was approximately 14 inches in diameter and broke some distance off the ground, impacting the occupants of the tents with extreme force as it fell and broke into pieces. One of the campers, a 61-year-old male, sustained very severe injuries, with a 54-year-old woman in the same tent sustaining injuries to her legs. A 23- year-old woman in an adjacent tent sustained a head injury that was likely prevented from being fatal only by a camp chair near her head that was crushed and reduced the force of impact. Despite valiant lifesaving efforts immediately initiated by the other members in the party, the male’s injuries ultimately proved to be fatal.

While members of the group delivered first aid to the three injured parties, they also activated the emergency function of a Garmin InReach device, which resulted in a notification being sent to the Union County 911 Dispatch Center. The Garmin Emergency Response Center passed messages between the reporting party on scene and 911 dispatchers, and also provided the precise location of the incident. As information about the incident was progressively gathered and relayed to 911 dispatchers, Union County SAR was activated, and the La Grande and Elgin fire departments were notified of the medical emergency.

Due to the remoteness of the accident site, which is most easily accessed by 15 miles of river travel by boat, the Union County SAR incident commander immediately requested a hoist-capable helicopter from the Oregon Army National Guard through the Oregon Emergency Management SAR Coordinator, and also requested mutual aid from the Wallowa County SAR swiftwater rescue team. During this time the La Grande Fire Department (LGFD), in coordination with SAR, arranged for an over-flight of the area with Life Flight Network. A local Life Flight helicopter immediately responded and attempted to transport LGFD paramedics to near the patients, but could not find a suitable landing zone near enough to the incident and had to return.

While the Life Flight helicopter was performing its initial recon flight, a combined team of Union County and Wallowa County SAR swiftwater rescue technicians and LGFD paramedics responded to deploy down the Wallowa River from Highway 82 at Minam. This team then floated the 15 miles down the Wallowa and Grande Ronde Rivers to access the patients, reaching them approximately 2 hours after entering the river. At approximately the same time as the arrival of the SAR team on-scene, the Life Flight helicopter was able to return to the area and identify a suitable landing zone approximately 1.5 miles downstream from the accident location at an area known as Pine Bar. Due to tree canopy too dense to hoist patients by National Guard helicopter directly from the scene, the SAR initiated transport of the two surviving patients by boat to the landing zone at Pine Bar, and during this time the National Guard Blackhawk medivac helicopter also arrived on-scene from Salem.

At approximately 11:30 am, both patients were transferred from a SAR raft to the two medivac helicopters and subsequently transported to hospitals in Lewiston, ID and Walla Walla, WA, with LGFD personnel flying with both helicopter crews to the destination hospitals. The interagency water rescue team then escorted the remaining members of the camping party and the body of the deceased approximately 22 miles down the Grande Ronde River to the nearest take-out at Powwatka Bridge in Wallowa County, where they were met by additional SAR team personnel and funeral home staff.

This remote incident presented a tremendous amount of logistical challenges that were mitigated and overcome only due to the professional competence of those responding and the excellent interagency cooperation that we benefit from in Union County. The La Grande Fire Department, Union and Wallowa County SAR teams, Life Flight Network, Elgin Fire Department, sheriff’s office patrol deputies, and the Oregon National Guard personnel all integrated seamlessly to effect a rapid deployment of resources and efficient rescue on the ground, but at the same time many other agencies were assisting behind the scenes. Throughout the incident, a sheriff’s office patrol sergeant was positioned on a ridge above the river to function as a contingency communications relay, a Bureau of Land Management river ranger was in frequent contact with the incident commander (IC) providing detailed descriptions of the area and photos, and several U.S. Forest Service staff were also maintaining contact with the IC and assisting with preparations for contingency rescue plans if that became necessary.

Sheriff Bowen and the management staff of Union County SAR offer our sincere condolences to the family of the deceased, wish a speedy recovery to those injured, and express our incredible gratitude to our partner agencies and dedicated SAR volunteers who leave their homes, jobs, and families to respond to incidents.
My condolences to the parties. Hard to say whether they could have could have seen the tree was dangerous or not. I always look for widow makers but this one sounds like it probably wasn't obvious. Very impressive rescue operation. This may even be a case where the ability for two way communications was extremely useful. Probably more than a PLB would have been.
These kinds of incidents are coordinated and handled by highly trained and dedicated professionals and volunteers. It is very hard work. Condolences to the family and loved ones and job well done to all who assisted.

Thanks for posting this Mr. Sage.

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