- Associated Press - Saturday, February 7, 2015

PRIEST LAKE, Idaho (AP) - The winter survival clinic conjured up visions from Jack London’s classic short story, To Build a Fire, as students labored to create life-saving warmth near the damp, snowy shores of Priest Lake.

“Take the extra time to set yourself up for success,” the Fairchild Air Force Base survival instructor said.

“Cover your working area with a tarp or whatever to keep rain and snow off..

“Start with a split log or other platform to keep tinder and wood off damp ground..

“Don’t light your tinder until you’ve collected or cut a pile of wood in different thickness - pencil size, thumb size and bigger..”

Like so many survival skills, the steps are fairly simple, but the consequences of missing one can be the difference in life and death.

“Fire-building is something everyone should practice,” said Sgt. Joseph Cain.

The outdoors-savvy members of the Priest Lake Search and Rescue are no exception.

More than 80 PLSR volunteers and officers from state Fish and Game, federal Border Patrol and county sheriff’s agencies assembled at Priest Lake State Park recently for two days of winter rescue and survival training.

“Everybody here is volunteering their time,” including the instructors from the U.S. Air Force’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school, said Mike Nielsen, PLSR commander.

“It’s all about being ready to go beyond roads to help someone in an emergency.”

Better cell phone coverage in recent years has boosted self rescues by friends or families, cutting down on official calls for search and rescues, Nielsen said.

Nevertheless, PLSR, which is used throughout Bonner County, expects to be called into action about 10 times a year.

“It takes us about a half an hour to mobilize,” Nielsen said. “We run any conditions day or night. But almost all of our missions are at night. Mom doesn’t call the sheriff until daddy’s not home and it’s dark outside.

“Most of our missions are for snowmobilers and we have an elite team of expert riders that lead that group. We also have 37 people qualified in ropes rescue to go in and rescue a climber. When you need that expertise, there’s no substitute for it.”

Some of the 200 volunteers in PLSR are trained in rescuing hapless people who break through the ice on a lake. Some are equipped with ATVs and power boats while others are geared up with kayaks and backpacks to come to the aid of lost or injured people on land or water.

“We’ve rescued a lot of skiers and snowboarders who go out of bounds from Schweitzer and get lost,” Nielsen said. “There have been so many, we know where they’re likely to be. We send a group in at the bottom and wait for them to come out to us.”

PLSR volunteers range in age from 12 to 78. Some are fit enough to climb the highest peaks in the Selkirks. Others are trained in setting up command posts and logistics support.

Trevor Low, an eighth grader from Priest River, was attending the winter survival training with his mother and grandmother, Karen Dingerson - all of whom were camping out in the snow.

“Trevor put out the word before Christmas and his gifts were gear he needed to take this course,” Dingerson said. “It’s good to know he has this training when he heads out snowmobiling with his father.”

PLSR is a non-profit group that works for the Sheriff, Nielsen said. Members use their own gear and raise money for group essentials such as command center and radios. Priest Lake State Parks donates facilities for the weekend winter training.

“The counties could never afford these kinds of groups if volunteers didn’t provide their own gear and support,” he said. “We get no tax dollars. Our budget is based solely on what people, organizations and businesses give us.”

A new $60,000 radio system with GPS transmitters was purchased largely from fundraisers organized over several years by Priest Lake businesses.

“This system links into other systems and allows the command post to monitor the location and movements of each rescuer as they move in the field,” Nielsen said.

But high-tech gear is no substitute for first-aid training, survival skills, a knife and insight into improvisation.

“This winter survival training is actually a motivator for people to join PLSR,” Nielsen said. “Fairchild provides 15 experts from the survival school. The Air Force instructors are premier. They’re the cream of the cream among U.S. forces.”

Standing in the snow with his group of eight students, Sgt. Cain said their day would be devoted to learning skills boiled down under five needs of survival: treating injury, personal protection such as fire and shelter, signaling, sustenance and recovery.

“Each situation is different and you must prioritize the needs,” Cain said.

“Of course, an injury may need to be stabilized first. Shelter and fire may take a higher priority than food. You might regret not stomping out a signal first thing if a plane flies by while you’re making a shelter.

“The biggest mistake is not stepping back and thinking through things, and then prioritizing.

“Survival can be as simple as having an extra set of dry clothes and remembering to put them on.”

The training focused on ways to neutralize nasty weather.

Students learned that making a fire with wet wood can be incredibly difficult without viable tinder.

“After this session, you may never hit the trail without a container of cotton balls coated with Vaseline,” an instructor said.

“Some people think it’s the Vaseline that burns, but it’s the cotton fibers. The petroleum jelly just prolongs the flame like paraffin in a candle.”

He pinched the cotton ball numerous times to pull out tufts of coated fiber until it accumulated at least five times more surface area than the original cotton ball. “Make it hairy and fibrous before you light it” with a match, lighter, flint or other source, he said.

Fire starter was the difference between a flame and no flame in the damp conditions for many of the students.

They all shared notes on selecting the best knife for survival situations. One woman pointed out that she carries temporary fillings in her first aid kit after a miserable experience on camping trip.

“I really like these aluminum or titanium canteen cups that are big enough to slip over a Nalgene bottle for packing,” Cain said. “You should have something you can put on a fire to melt snow or boil water. Plastic doesn’t work too well over a fire.”

Jimmy Driver of Bonners Ferry was taking the course with his wife, Leah. They both joined PLSR four years ago.

“We do a lot of winter camping, so there’s nothing so far that I’d call real new to us,” he said early in the session. “But the survival school instructors are real cool and they break it down into easy-to-remember steps. It’s really useful stuff.”

Said Sgt. Cain: “The main point to remember in an emergency situation - don’t just die. Look around. Tap your will to survive.”

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The original story can be found on The Spokesman-Review’s website: https://bit.ly/1BXzLMT

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Information from: The Spokesman-Review, https://www.spokesman.com


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