(NEWS CENTER Maine) – When a person gets lost in Maine’s woods, law enforcement agencies such as the Warden Service are not the only units deployed.
A specific group of volunteers – certified search and rescue teams under the umbrella of Maine Association of Search and Rescue – converge from all corners of the state to help locate the person missing.
“We don't want to leave families wondering,” said Jim Bridge, a veteran rescuer and dog team leader. "You want to get there as fast as you can."
Volunteers work hand in hand with the Warden Service to navigate Maine’s most difficult terrains to make that crucial discovery.
Bridge said the calls come at all times of day or night. He keeps bags of supplies packed and ready: a GPS unit, a radio, headlamps and flashlights, medical supplies, and food in the event that he finds the person who may be lost in a dark forest, cold and hungry.
On average, the Warden Service gets called to about 450 searches for lost people every year, according to Warden Service Corporal John MacDonald.
"Searching for someone who's missing has to be done very methodically. It isn't Kansas. We're not walking through fields and tall grass here,” said Cpl. MacDonald. “If you come to a really thick area in the woods, it's go through it, because that could very likely be where the person is that we're looking for. It's not an easy task."
Trying to walk in a straight line -- obstructed by large trees, downed limbs, and uneven surfaces -- all while keeping eyes peeled for even the smallest clue and not getting lost themselves, is a mental and physical challenge.
Typically, grid search teams track over 40-acre areas. Every search is different, and depending on how thick the vegetation is, it can take 30 minutes or more to complete one section of the grid.
Search areas can be 16 times that size: one square mile, the equivalent of 484 football fields. Wardens and SAR teams searched areas of that size in Lebanon for a missing skydiving instructor, Brett Bickford, and in North Yarmouth, for Kristin Westra.
"We count on these people -- the searchers from MASAR and other groups pretty heavily,” said Cpl. MacDonald. “The personal sacrifice that these volunteers are making, both from their personal time, their expenses, the dedication of their service, level of training, it’s honorable for sure.”
Many on social media wondered why searchers did not find 47-year-old Westra first before two children found her in their backyard less than a mile from Westra’s home. For four days, wardens and volunteers scoured the wide search area, battling rain, wind, and thick vegetation, but also using drones, search dogs, and dozens of boots on the ground.
"I know in the scheme of things it's not like we're at Baxter State Park, but it's huge, huge, dense wooded area that we have to check. In the middle of the night, who's to say how far she may have run or walk -- on roads or in the woods,” said Capt. Scott Stewart with the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office during the search.
"It's easy to Monday morning quarterback. I think until you are on the ground, you don't completely comprehend what that level of work is like,” said Cpl. MacDonald.
Searchers said they had planned to search that area in the coming days.
A search is no walk in the woods: volunteers wade through waist deep water, crawl on hands and knees, and use dogs, and even horses, to track the scent of a missing person.
Bridge remembers finding a young man, cold and hungry, lost in the woods for days, saving him from the grips of hypothermia.
"There's a young man that wouldn't have been. That's huge. It makes all of those long night of not finding anybody worth it, because you never know. It might be my turn tonight,” said Bridge.