Local firefighters rescued on Mt. Ashland

At 8 a.m. Sunday morning, firefighters Billy Earl and Don Manning ended their 24-hour shift at Ashland Fire and Rescue and headed for Mt. Ashland for a day of snowmobiling. Eight hours later, around 4 p.m., they called the station and said they needed help. The sudden afternoon snowstorm left them in whiteout conditions, with one snowmobile disabled and the other stuck in a drift.

Their co-workers at the fire department pinpointed their location on the north side of the mountain with GPS equipment, and the pair attempted to hike back to the road. But by 6 p.m., when they still hadn't called back, shift captain Bob Cockell alerted Jackson County Search and Rescue.

"They called back to the fire station, and we told them to find a spot, get in a tree well and dig a protection snow cave," Cockell said. "We took their last GPS coordinates there."

Cockell guided search and rescue teams to the firefighters' approximate location, but whiteout conditions on the mountain prevented their rescue until around 10 a.m. Monday morning.

A crew of nearly 25 people with four sno-cats worked overnight, building four different "roads" in the snow to create a path to the snow cave where they were staying, said Sheriff's Lt. Pat Rowland, who oversees the search and rescue teams.

Because of the extreme conditions, crews were concerned about the men surviving a night on the mountain, but they were well-prepared with food, water, and cold weather gear, and they kept a fire going throughout the night with dry tree branches.

"They had good survival techniques, and kept warm by the fire," Rowland said.

They also had the fire department just a phone call away for moral support. They talked to each other no fewer than 10 times during the search, Capt. Cockell said, and the men's spirits never seemed to flag.

"I would get an update and say 'Hey, we've got to backtrack and bring in a cat from another way,'" he said. "They said 'Oh a couple more hours? OK, we need to get more firewood.' They prepared for it and kept the fire ripping."

Families of the missing firefighters gathered at the fire station to receive updates about the search through Cockell, and firefighters at Medford Fire and Rescue offered their support as well.

10 a.m., the crews met one of the missing men, who led rescuers back to their snow shelter.

The situation is a good lesson in sacrificing one's ego to ask for help in emergencies, Cockell said, especially considering the men were experienced snowmobilers accustomed to working in crisis situations.

"These are pretty level-headed guys in emergencies. They had the right equipment and still got caught by surprise and had to survive a pretty rough night. Had they not been able to call or start a fire, it could have been a pretty desperate situation. They said it's a pretty humbling experience to get surprised like that."

Largely because they called early and were prepared, the two men's biggest complaint was fatigue after they were rescued.

Lt. Rowland said avid snowmobilers like Earl and Manning needn't give up their hobby, but should take extra precautions when flakes are falling.

"Just watch the snow," he said. "If it's fresh snow, you might get 30- to 40-foot drifts...just be careful and tell somebody where you're going."

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