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Alaska needs to take fresh look at emergency rescue flights

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Posted: Thursday, August 29, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 7:02 am, Thu Aug 29, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — I want to thank the dozens of people who called or wrote to pass along best wishes after my column last week announcing my plans to leave the News-Miner in mid-September.

This job has given me a great opportunity to learn about Alaska and share some of what I have been able to find out during the past 35 years or so. I am grateful to have had so many loyal readers, some of whom remember when I was a kid.

I will be in the office for the next couple of weeks, working through the stacks of paper and cleaning up loose ends. You may see several more columns with my name on them before I move to my new job.

My immediate challenge is to not take on too many new assignments, which is hard because I always find myself getting intrigued by the latest developments about whatever turns up on my desk each day.

This week is no different.

After hearing from Virgil Umphenour about the difficult circumstances faced by his son, guide Eric Umphenour, in the Alaska Range foothills late last week, I’m sure we need a fresh look at how rescue flights are handled in our part of the state.

We don’t know whether the sheep hunter from Texas would have survived had he been rescued soon after being crushed by a 1,000-pound rock in a freak accident. But the incident points to a problem that deserves immediate attention by the congressional delegation and the governor.

In short, the question is this: What would it take to allow the U.S. Army at Fort Wainwright to take part in life-saving rescue missions such as those that happened many times during the years before the war in Iraq?

Last Friday night, had a rescue flight from Fort Wainwright been an option, the hunter could have gotten medical care several hours sooner. In a recent rescue in the Brooks Range, there was a delay as well because the response had to come from Southcentral.

I am not criticizing those who took part in these missions, but the state and federal authorities need to look at how we use the resources available in Alaska.

The situation here is different than in the Lower 48, and for many years the Army recognized this by allowing the MAST flights to continue. They were more than valuable training exercises.

I suspect that the expert crews at Fort Wainwright would be glad to help again if only they could. Time and distance are the enemies during medical emergencies, and flying out of Fairbanks helps hold both to a minimum.

Up until 2008, before a large deployment to the Middle East, the Army saved many lives in Alaska through the actions of pilots and crews from Fort Wainwright.

During the past five years, the responses to emergencies in remote areas have been slower in some instances because crews have had to be deployed from Anchorage at times. Fewer resources available for immediate response have translated into critical delays.

The Fort Wainwright Military Assistance to Safety and Traffic crews handled 40 rescue missions in 2007 and 53 in 2006. According to one estimate, the Army crews flew as many as 1,000 rescue missions in three decades during which they provided an outstanding public service.

As I wrote here in 2008: “We have taken this service for granted over the years and have come to rely upon it. The Army crews fly in weather both good and bad at all times of day over terrain that ranges from broad river valleys to narrow canyons. Suffice to say, we’ll be in a world of hurt without the MAST flights.”

Virgil said he asked about getting an Army helicopter sent to the site east of Healy but was told the crews were not permitted to do so.

It took more than six hours to get help from Anchorage. Back in 2001, Eric helped save Mildred “Tiny” Buzby after she was injured in a four-wheeler accident in the foothills of the Alaska Range. In a newspaper interview at the time, Eric said how impressed he was that the military got there so quickly, 21 minutes after takeoff.

“I hope if I ever get in trouble they respond real quick,” Eric told the News-Miner in 2001.

That military service no longer exists. Virgil, who said he wants to get people focused on this issue, said it might have been a lifesaver for the unfortunate Texan.

For the next couple of weeks, Dermot Cole can be reached at cole@news or 459-7530.

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