Experts warn hitting trails in summer months can be dangerous
Since Skyline Regional Park opened in Buckeye six months ago, firefighters have responded to the trails more than a dozen times.
Now with temperatures in the triple digits, the mountains are all the more dangerous for hikers and emergency crews, said Battalion Chief Travis Rand with the Buckeye Fire Department.
Six people died during one weekend in June on mountains around Arizona as the heat hit record highs, proving the trails can turn deadly for even the most avid hikers if they’re not prepared, especially during the summer months, Rand said.
Most people who end up needing to be rescued have hiked farther than their ability — older people with medical issues, visitors from out of town or even young, fit hikers who weren’t prepared, Rand said.
“I think people underestimate the weather and overestimate their ability, and it gets a lot of people in trouble,” Buckeye Fire Engineer William Burnett said.
Buckeye firefighters respond to the mountains in a technical rescue vehicle loaded with gear that includes a stokes basket, big wheel and belay and safety line kits.
They also take backpacks with all the medical equipment found on a fire truck. The packs weigh about 33 pounds each and have drugs, heart monitors, IV equipment and splints.
“It’s a very sneaky 33-34 [pounds], because those backpacks distribute the weight extremely well,” Rand said. “So it doesn’t feel like it.”
Firefighters prepare by getting familiar with the trails, trying to acclimate to the heat and keeping constantly hydrated, because they’re just as susceptible to the elements as anyone else, Buckeye Fire Capt. Jake Blockwitz said.
“If somebody’s been hiking for an hour, it’s going to take us an hour to hike to them,” he said. “When we do go out there, we don’t want to be in the same situation they are.”
On a mountain rescue, the firefighters first assess the risk profile — the distance to the patients, time it will take to reach them, how bad their injuries are and the weather. It takes 12 to 15 firefighters to carry a patient out using a stokes basket, Rand said.
“It does take its toll on the rescuers, because there are some spots on the west side with a bunch of switchbacks,” he said. “If it’s 115 degrees and I’m sending four guys up there pulling the big wheel, how much risk am I putting on these guys?”
For the worst-case scenarios, they have another option available.
The Buckeye Fire Department is one of only three in the Valley that was selected to have firefighters trained to perform rescues using a helicopter operated by the Phoenix Police Department.
Seven Buckeye firefighters are certified as air rescue technicians (ARTs), and respond to incidents in the West Valley with Phoenix Firebird 10, the only helicopter in the county with a rescue hoist and cargo winch system.
“We try to make it efficient and safe for the patient and for us, so when we use the helicopter, it’s because we’re usually on a spectrum where it is a little more serious and time to get a patient out,” said Burnett, who is part of the ARTs team along with Blockwitz.
Almost half of the rescues so far this year at Skyline have required use of the helicopter, which is primarily used for law enforcement purposes, Rand said.
“For us to say we’re pulling that out of the system, we’ve got to make sure our guys are making the right call, and so far, we’ve made the right call on all of them,” he said.
Hikers who have to be rescued off a mountain with the helicopter are not charged for it, Rand said.
“Really, for the West Valley, we’re getting almost like a $10 million piece of equipment for free, because they don’t charge anything to come out,” he said. “It’s a really nice resource that we have.”
Skyline Regional Park averages about 700 vehicles per day on weekends during cooler months and 350 vehicles a day during the week, said Robert Wisener, Buckeye’s conservation and project manager.
Now that it’s hotter, about 200 to 250 vehicles have still been counted per day on the weekends and 150 to 200 vehicles on weekdays, he said.
The park has joined others around the state in an effort to warn hikers about the extreme heat by posting advisories at the trailheads and on its website, Wisener said.
“Please use extra caution and use trails at dawn or dusk when there is more shade and less intense heat,” the advisory states. “During the day, full sun temperatures can be more than 20 degrees warmer than official shade temperature, making it dangerous for trail users. Even if you are hydrated, you can still suffer from heat-related illness.”
It also notes that trail difficulty ratings increase by one level when temperatures are above 90 degrees, so those rated easy become moderate and moderate becomes difficult.
Hikers planning to hit the trails should start preparing early by hydrating the day before, Rand said.
“Hydrating doesn’t mean drinking iced tea, soda, coffee and energy drinks — all the diuretics that are out there,” he said. “Those are the things that are just really destroying people when they get on the mountain, because then they go, ‘Now I’m going to drink water,’ and they’re so far behind in the process.”
People should also take plenty of water on their hikes, wear sunscreen and a hat, go in pairs and let someone know where they’ll be hiking and when they expect to return.
“Once you’re at half your water supply, you should be coming back,” Rand said.
When hiking a new trail, people should break it up by only going part of the way the first time so they don’t reach overexertion, he said. The next time, they can go a little farther as they become more familiar with the trail.
Signs hikers might be in trouble include clammy skin, weakness, blurry vision, cramps, fatigue, dizziness, dragging their feet, tripping and headaches, Burnett said.
“Sometimes, we don’t always know what’s wrong, but we don’t feel right,” he said. “Listen to your body; it’s telling you, ‘Hey, wait a minute.’”
“That’s when we’d rather people just go ahead and call 911, because if they try and stick it out and come down, that’s when they make it way more difficult,” Rand said.
Even though people might be putting themselves and rescuers at risk by hiking in the extreme heat, Burnett said he isn’t in favor of having a “Stupid hiker law” similar to the “Stupid motorist law,” where people who drive into a flooded wash have to pay for their rescue.
“The problem with that is then people have the mindset that they don’t want to get charged with that, so they’re going to push themselves a little further,” he said.
“We want people to enjoy the amenities — Skyline Park is an amazing place. It really is a great park to run in and hike, but you’ve got to be prepared.”
For information on Skyline Regional Park, 2600 N. Watson Road, and tips for staying safe in the heat, go to skylineregionalpark.com.
Emily Toepfer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @EmilyToepfer.