Our continuing series of stories on long-serving fire department volunteers branches out this week to include a member of the regional search & rescue (SAR) group. Char Vetsch is a senior member of that organization, having signed up in the wake of the 2011 wildfire disaster.
The family had lost their house in the May 15 conflagration. So did her parents-in-law.
“Summer of 2011,” she says. “Right after the fire. They did a huge intake, the biggest ever.”
A month or two after the fires, Vetsch was one of the 13 or 14 people who signed up, wanting to make a difference. All of them got a spot, she says.
One reason she was interested, she says, is “I’ve always been an outdoor person.”
Growing up on the family homestead near Valleyview, she spent a lot of time out on trail in the bush with her dad, and calls it “a second-nature thing to me.”
There was that, plus a desire to do something helpful, “give back in some way.” Twelve years later, she’s one of the managers, having worked her way up.
There were some tough lessons early on. One of them was to not try to break in a brand-new pair of boots on a call. Vetsch says a couple of weeks after she signed up, the group got called to search for a missing person near Calling Lake. Two 14-hour days of walking later, her feet were a mass of blisters. Plus they never found who they were looking for!
Other cases worked out better. One time they were in the midst of a training session at the fire hall in Slave Lake when a call came in about a missing four-year-old boy. The little guy and his dog had gone out to play; the dog returned alone and the parents were getting worried.
“Close to dark, we spotted him,” she says. The boy told them, ‘My dog left me in a puddle!’
In other cases, the results are grimmer. Coming across a dead body for the first time was a memorable experience, Vetsch says. It was a suicide.
“It was a huge thing to overcome for me,” she says, adding that there had been no training for that sort of encounter.
Vetsch has come across more dead people since then. As a manager, it’s part of her job to “make sure the rest of your team is okay after that.”
Those cases are of course few and far between. Vetsch says SAR is responding to more calls these days than in her early years – 10 – 20 a year is her estimate, and it is mostly enjoyable.
“Overall, I love it,” she says. “Doing something positive, putting my energy into closing (things) up for families.”
What brought Vetsch to Slave Lake was that her husband came to help out with a family trucking business. They thought they’d stay a year or two, but ended up (like so many others) putting down roots. Her children are now 28 and 27.
Vetsch has also worked for the past decade as admin. assistant at Hall #1 in Slave Lake for the regional fire service. She’s just now in transition between that job and a new one for the town, in occupational health and safety. She figures she’ll be doing a couple more years in SAR, bringing her years as a volunteer to an even 15.
“We’ve got seven new managers (every SAR response must have a manager),” she says. “It gives me the ability to slow down a bit.”