South Search and Rescue: Serving Big Horn County for 40 years



Forty years ago next month, Dec. 4, to be exact, the South Big Horn County Search and Rescue Unit was formed following a major search.

The unit will commemorate the event with a dinner in February to honor all current and former Search and Rescue members. With 2013 being the 40th anniversary for the north unit, the two are combining for a dinner at the Greybull Elks Club.

Last Tuesday, the Big Horn County commissioners offered financially support by voting unanimously to supplement the search and rescue budget by about $1,700 to cover the cost of the appreciation dinner.

Chairman Jerry Ewen said, “The search and rescue units on both ends give a lot to the county and often times a lot of the expenses come out of their own pocket.”

CJ Rea said he has gone through records and tried to compile a list of all members. All members are invited, and invitations are being sent, but if someone doesn’t get an invitation they are asked to contact the sheriff’s office.

Recently current and former south search and rescue members — Dan Anders, Jack Clucas, Rea, Bob Willson and Bob Russell — sat down to discuss the start of the unit and where the unit is today.

The south search and rescue is only authorized for 30 slots so some members like Clucas, Russell and Rea are on the executive reserve list and can be called up when additional personnel are needed on a mission.

Current officers are Capt. Dan Anders, Lt. Bob Willson, First Sgt. Mark Tomascewski, Second Sgt. Debbie Fowler and Secretary Jackee Smith.

The search that led the organization of the south unit was a six-day search in early November 1972.

According to the Greybull Standard’s Nov. 9, 1972, issue, a six-day search for a Greybull man, Gene Van Matre, ended Thursday at 11:30 a.m. with the discovery of Van Matre’s body near Hudson Falls in the Big Horn Mountains.

Van Matre and a hunting partner, Walter W. Fiene, were reported lost Saturday, Oct. 28. Two days later, Oct. 30, the body of Fiene was found by a search party in a steep walled narrow canyon above Hudson Falls.

Rea, Clucas and Russell remembered that Sheriff George Warfel gathered volunteers together for the search and after the search he called a meeting to begin formalizing a unit. A second meeting, with bylaws borrowed from Park County and adopted, was held on Dec. 4 and the unit was formed.

Clucas was appointed as the captain by Warfel, he said, adding that Warfel asked if he would serve as captain. The other first officers were Lt. Tom VanGelder, First Sgt. Paul Collingwood and Second Sgt. Craig Stoelk.

Clucas served for two years and set the precedent that captain only serve two years. The only exception in 40 years has been Vern Henderson who served three years, they said.

There have been many, many searches and rescues over the years. Anders said. This year they have been called out on 14 “full-blown” searches and five assists and the crash truck has been called out 54 times.

Today’s search and rescue unit responds to all structure fires to provide lights, fans and fill the air tanks for all five south Big Horn County fire departments.

They also handle extrication for vehicle crashes in the south end of the county. Russell said when they started he would take his own wrecker to the crashes.


When they first started in 1972, all the equipment they used was personal equipment. When they went out on a mission, they borrowed radios from road and bridge, the Forest Service and Hawkins and Powers, they said.

Rea and Russell said, “The first thing George bought us were hats and the second was orange vests.” He said it was too hard for people to see the searchers without the orange vests and they helped distinguish searchers from other people in the area, including those they may be searching for.

Today, they have radios and while they still use some of their own equipment they do have a lot of S&R equipment. They have two rescue trucks, three utility vehicles (side-by-sides), a snowcat from government surplus, a jet boat, two Humvees (government surplus) three snowmobiles (two were donated) and a couple of trailers. They also have an incident command trailer.

Along with the new extrication equipment, one of the newest pieces of equipment is six new GPS units purchased by the Local Emergency Management Committee. He said the units show the location of the other searchers with the other five units.

They also have their main crash truck and the “purple” truck that was purchased with donations from the Jared Hammack family from Indiana.

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