Officials seek drone for Craters search for missing woman

kterhune@idahostatesman.comOctober 17, 2013 

A section of lava field west of the Tree Molds Trail in the Craters of the Moon National Monument.

CRATERS OF THE MOON NATIONAL MONUMENT

In the weeks since a Boise woman disappeared at the Craters of the Moon National Monument, teams of searchers have crossed and crisscrossed the park, looking for any sign of Dr. Jo Elliott-Blakeslee.

Nothing has turned up.

Now, park employees hope a piece of high-tech military equipment will help them spot the missing hiker.

Monument Superintendent Dan Buckley said Craters staff is taking advantage of the end of the government shutdown to request an unmanned military drone. Employees would use the drone to snap high-resolution pictures of the park below.

Teams could study every inch of the images, looking for anything that could point them to the 63-year-old Elliott-Blakeslee.

“What we’re trying to get is high-resolution aerial photography, and a drone is one way to get that,” Buckley said.

But it might not be easy. The monument must first put in a request to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), explaining why it needs the drone. If it is approved, FEMA will, in turn, appeal to the Department of Defense, which can accept or deny the request.

“We’re not sure we will be able to get one because we’re talking about a national defense asset,” he said.

If everything is approved, it could still be a week or more until searchers get the drone. Buckley stressed that the process would have been even harder to navigate — if not impossible — during the 16-day partial shutdown, which ended Wednesday night.

But he is hopeful. Fire managers were granted use of a drone to map the damage caused by the Rim Fire in Yosemite. What’s more, he said, they received it in just three days.

He estimated the drone would cost about $25,000. FEMA may cover the cost, but Buckley said the monument had not yet figured out who will ultimately foot the bill.

Because there is no guarantee they will be granted the drone, Buckley said, search teams are exploring other options as well. Pilots could use a Civil Air Patrol plane, a private airplane or even a helicopter to snap photographs of the terrain.

“We’re hoping that with the high-resolution imagery, we’ll find some sort of clue, some sort of anomaly on the landscape that will lead us to Dr. Jo,” he said.

Those clues could ease the burden for ground searchers. Because teams are searching in increasingly remote sections, they have to hike in about 12 miles before they even reach the area they’ll be combing.

“It’s a long way to get folks in, and then the terrain in there is really rugged, really rough lava flow,” Buckley said. “If something was to happen, like they get injured, it would take a while to get them out of there.”

Because the teams carry GPS devices, the park can track where they’ve already looked.

“From all these tracks, it’s pretty much blacked out the map,” he said.

Some fringe areas of the park remain to be explored, but Buckley said he was fairly confident the teams would have found the woman if she was within the search zones.

“She’s either outside of our search area, or she’s within our search area in a crack or crevice or cave or tube underground,” he said.

Eyes in the sky have already helped the search. The body of Elliott-Blakeslee’s hiking companion, Amy Linkert, 70, was found Sept. 25. It was first spotted from a helicopter.

“These were elderly women, they probably did not walk that far from their vehicle,” Buckley said. “We were amazed that the first subject we found, Amy Linkert, was as far out on the lava as she was.”

But Linkert’s body was less than 2 miles from the women’s truck, he said. Elliott-Blakeslee could not be too far away.

The search is still being manned by volunteers, park staff and Butte County Sheriff’s Office deputies. Buckley said the end of the shutdown has allowed more park employees to return to work.

“All our staff is back to work (Thursday) morning, the park gates are open, all the barricades have been pulled,” he said. “We are open for business, and happy to be so.”

Buckley said that the monument’s staff members were excited to be back on the job after a long furlough.

“It was kind of a hard few weeks for the folks who were here, to see visitors drive in, see the gates closed, and turn around and drive out,” he said.

About 19 employees were working at the park Thursday. Some seasonal workers’ jobs ended when summer was over, and a few employees were out of town when the announcement came that the shutdown was over and they could return to work.

The end of the shutdown means the monument will fill once again with tourists. But Buckley said it shouldn’t impact the search. The section of the park currently being combed is infrequently visited, and signs at the trailhead will alert visitors that the search is still going on.

“If folks are out and happen to notice something and bring it to our attention, then that may actually help us,” he said.

But staff does not want tourists venturing out onto the lava fields to help, especially if they’re not in good physical shape.

“I can’t emphasize that enough,” Buckley said. “We don’t want to be rescuing searchers.”

Katie Terhune: 377-6219

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