A couple set out on an overnight hike in the Pisgah National Forest in April, but when they failed to return to a trailhead parking lot to meet family, an estimated 200 first-responders scoured the area in vain, running up $28,000 in costs over several days.
Later they were found working as street performers in downtown Asheville - unaware of the search.
"It was a tremendous search effort from multiple agencies including North Carolina and South Carolina," said Maj. Frank Stout, spokesman for the Henderson County Sheriff's Office.
Those circumstances were rare, but emergency services, specifically Mills River Fire and Rescue, have been taxed in recent years with forest searches and rescues as more people are going into the woods for recreation.
So far this year, the fire department - made up of five full-time staffers and 45 volunteers - has been called to Pisgah National Forest 24 times, said Mills River Fire and Rescue chief Rick Livingston. For each call, the department sends a minimum of 35 people.
Additionally, about $32,000 has been spent on the calls, a figure that is no small sum to the fire station. Mills River Fire and Rescue is responsible for 29.5 miles of forest land.
Authorities have also seen a rise in crime and vehicle accidents, primarily on Yellow Gap Road and Wash Creek Road.
Stout said people on the run go to the forest to hide out, or sometimes kids drink or smoke marijuana there.
Search and rescue efforts
Often when people get hurt or lost in the woods, they don't think about the rescue efforts or money, and it quickly adds up.
To drive about a mile into the forest in a 1989 Jeep, owned by North Transylvania Fire Rescue, takes about 25 minutes at speeds no greater than about 3 mph, according to fire chief Donnie Kilpatrick. His department is responsible for 13 square miles of the Pisgah National Forest, but nearly 90 acres of the forest lie in Transylvania County.
When trails are eroded, it makes it harder for emergency services to reach a victim when they're using an ATV or other vehicle, he added. Then, the rescue might take twice as long, weighing on more resources. Some rescues have stretched from six hours to 210 man-hours.
Entering the Pisgah National Forest from the Turkey Pen trail head, a popular trail and one that emergency services responds to frequently, rescuers using a vehicle can make it a mile before coming to a sharp curve that is impassable. Rescuers were forced to create a new path along the Bradley Creek Trail to be able to continue to descend into the forest.
About a mile and a half into the woods, rescuers are forced to leave their vehicle and continue on foot due to a washout on the trail and rock that has emerged over the years, making it nearly impossible to cross. Then comes a river crossing.
Without a vehicle, a rescue becomes even more challenging when an accident requires that someone be carried out on a stretcher. That calls for a team of eight.
"Imagine having to carry a 200-pound man for two to three miles," Mills River Fire and Rescue captain Chris Ballinger said. "Our men would have to take a lot of rest and we'd have to have fresh crews ready."
In a recent search, a man was about three miles into the Turkey Pen area with a twisted ankle. Rescuers reached the man in about two hours, but it took them six hours to get out of the woods - an effort consisting of both walking and driving, Ballinger said.
Crews headed into the forest during daylight, but at least two miles that included multiple river crossings had been spent in the dark.
"The forest is great and I’m glad we have the forest, but I want to leave it better for my kids and grandkids," Livingston said. "As that usage increases we are going to have to step up to the plate and deal with those changes that are being created."
Rescue operation costs vary depending on resources needed, which can include fuel and the use of helicopters or specialized rescue teams.
Some searches or rescues can last less than 15 minutes and cost little to nothing. Other times they can carry on for days and cost upwards of $100,000, according to emergency officials.
When helicopters are brought in from the North Carolina State Highway Patrol or Mission Hospital's Mountain Air Medical Airlift, known as MAMA, the price of a search always spikes, Livingston said.
A helicopter can cost $700- $4,000 an hour, not including the crew's salaries and fuel costs. Emergency responders and other agencies are responsible for covering the cost, with the injured person paying medical costs if they are sent to a hospital.
"A lot of times folks who come to the forest are people from out of town," he said. "They aren’t necessarily locals that decide to go up there and take a hike for a day."
Ways to alleviate costs
A spike in rescues has forced Livingston to look for new ways to help alleviate unexpected costs.
"I've never had an expenditure line item for search and rescue within Pisgah National Forest, but starting next year, you will see that," Livingston said.
The department's budget doesn't allocate funding solely for search and rescues, he added. The department operates on a fire valuation tax that Mills River residents pay, which is 9 cents per $100 property. However, this tax only covers 38 square miles, not including the county land that lies in the forest, which is not taxed.
There is federal funding, known as payment in lieu of taxes, that is divided among counties where federal land crosses, but this money goes into a general fund for the county, Livingston said. However, if that money was divided among all responding agencies, it could be a huge benefit.
In 2016, Henderson County received $32,514 for its 19,115 acres of federal land, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior. Transylvania County received $214,065 in 2016 for its 89,094 acres.
Livingston also questioned whether bikers, hikers, horseback riders or any other forest visitors should be required to pay a fee to use the land, as do hunters and fishermen.
"We should all be sharing in the cost of using our forest to create a fund or pot of money that can be used to maintain these trails, to search for and rescue these folks," he said. "We want to have some money to work with as it relates to emergency services."