THEDFORD, Neb. — Two serious accidents on remote all-terrain vehicle trails at the Nebraska National Forest have local rescuers seeking better equipment to answer such offroad, backwoods calls for help.
On June 16, rescuers with the Thedford Volunteer Fire Department had to hand-carry a severely injured ATV rider about three-quarters of a mile. Their off-road rescue vehicle — a cart pulled by an ATV — proved too unstable on the narrow sand trails in the forest.
Now the 13-member rescue squad, which covers 1,148 square miles, is seeking donations to purchase a more stable rescue vehicle — a specially outfitted Yamaha Rhino costing about $9,600.
“We need something that we can get to the patient with,” said Pat Neben, an emergency medical technician with the Thedford department.
Rescuers said that next time they might not be as lucky as they were last week and in April. Both times, injured ATV riders survived long trips to rescue squads waiting on the nearest roads.
It can be up to a 15-mile ride on the sandy 50-inch-wide trails before rescuers reach a paved road.
“You’re just thinking they’re going to die before we can get them there,” said Shannon Ahlstrom, another EMT.
The issue of off-road rescues has heightened in recent years as the popularity of the ATV/dirt bike trails at the federal forest near Halsey has increased significantly.
It’s not uncommon on a busy holiday weekend to have 400 to 500 ATV riders plying the 90 miles of sandy trails that crisscross the 92,000-acre forest.
Accidents typically involve riders losing control and striking trees or other ATVs. The mishaps are not common, but the two near-fatal accidents this spring were not the first at the Halsey forest.
“Frankly, we’re going to see more accidents because there are more ATV riders,” said Patti Barney, a district ranger.
The forest is a precarious place to have an accident because of its wilderness location.
Cell phone service is sporadic to nonexistent, and the volunteer rescue squad that serves the area is in Thedford, 15 miles from the forest’s main entrance.
Even after rescuers retrieve an injured party from the backwoods and return to the main entrance, there’s another 80 miles to traverse, either by helicopter or by rescue squad, to the nearest trauma center in North Platte.
“A lot of the problem is that people go there and don’t understand it’s a remote area,” said Dan Nitzel of Grand Island, business manager for the Nebraska Off-Highway Vehicle Association, which has 3,200 members.
“They think that a hospital is right down the road and if they get in trouble, a rescue squad will swoop in and save them,” Nitzel said.
The Forest Service doesn’t have the manpower, money or equipment to do rescue work, so that job is left mainly to local volunteers who, in a recent interview, expressed frustration that they have less-than-ideal equipment.
The two recent accidents illustrate the hazard, they said.
In the accident last week, a 55-year-old rider from Lincoln lost control of his ATV and struck a tree, suffering facial cuts, broken ribs and internal injuries.
It took just over two hours to get the man to an ambulance. Rescuers drove as far as they could in a four-wheel-drive unit and then hand-carried the injured man, on a body board, for three-quarters of a mile.
In April, a 54-year-old male rider from Broken Bow broke several ribs, both legs and his collarbone.
Rescuershad a hard time locating the badly bleeding man due to vague directions. He also had been moved by friends, who eventually found the rescue squad parked at a forest parking area.
“How he survived, I don’t know,” said Thomas County Sheriff Gary Eng.
Thedford officials recently tried out four models of UTVs (utility terrain vehicles) and opted for a Yamaha Rhino because its narrower body was a better fit for the narrow ATV trails, Neben said.
A fundraising picnic has been scheduled for July 19 at the picnic shelter at the Halsey forest.
Most of the people who ride ATVs at the forest are from outside the area, Thedford officials said, and they’re hoping that the riders will donate to the effort. Taxes, they said, are already high in Thomas County, which has only 623 residents.
Nitzel, the ATV group official, said his organization helped Thedford obtain its current ATV rescue equipment and plans to help again.
“I sincerely believe that the rescue people are trying to do the best they can, and they’re trying to figure out a faster way to get to people,” he said.
Donations may be sent in care of: EMT Fund Drive, Security First Bank, Box 288, Thedford, NE 69166.
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Color Photo/1 Thomas County Sheriff Gary Eng with a trailer and an ATV used on res cue calls. Rescuers find the equipment difficult to use on narrow forest trails. Locator Map/1