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A record year for search and rescue in Zion National Park

Oct 5, 2021, 7:21 PM
Zion rescue...
A Nellis Air Force Base helicopter leaves Zion National Park after crews rescue John Fiske Burg on Saturday. Photo: Zion National Park

SPRINGDALE, Utah – Recent reports show Zion National Park rescue crews have been especially busy over the past 12 months.  But the problem seems to be unique to Zion. Officials with Utah State Parks say they’re not seeing a similar spike.

Zion National Park rescue calls increased nearly 60% over 2020

So far this calendar year, 153 search and rescue (SAR) efforts have been made in Zion National Park.  Compare that to only 87 attempts in 2020, and only 47 rescue attempts in 2019. 

The most recent search involved John Fiske Burge, a 79-year-old hiker stranded in the wilderness for several days.  Chief Ranger Daniel Fagergren says the man was able to make a cell phone call to his son and then to 911 Friday afternoon.

“He did say that he was at the beginning or the top of a slot,” said Fagergren. “That was helpful, to a degree, but there are so many slot canyons in Zion that it really doesn’t narrow down our search area.”

Manned and unmanned aircraft from Nellis Air Force Base, spotted the man about five miles away from where he started hiking.

(Video below: A press conference regarding the rescue of hiker John Fiske Burg)

Number of rescue attempts at Utah State Parks 

The data is still being collected on the total number of SAR efforts within Utah State Parks, so they don’t yet know exactly how many attempts were made during the same period.  Officials were worried at the beginning of the year that rescue efforts would skyrocket, but Lt. Eric Stucki said that isn’t the case.

“We have seen the average amounts of searches and rescues, incidents and drownings,” Stucki said. “It has been a very average year, consistent with other years we’ve had.”

He said overall visitation is up from last year, so the possibility of more rescue attempts stands to reason. But he also said that most Utahns have a good understanding of what is needed to safely visit state parks.

“A lot of our Utah folks that use our public lands and use our state parks are generally pretty prepared and pretty knowledgeable of the areas they’re going to,” said Stucki.

Out-of-state visitors more likely to call for SAR

Out-of-state visitors, however, are not faring as well.

“We have seen an increase, though, of out-of-state visitors getting themselves in trouble and losing life,” Stucki said.

Too many people from outside of Utah are not properly prepared for recreation on lakes and rivers, he said, forgetting things like lifejackets.

Another problem Stucki mentions is that out-of-towners aren’t bringing the gear they may need for cold weather.

“The temperatures are always changing.  Our weather patterns are forever changing,” he said.

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A record year for search and rescue in Zion National Park