Here’s why statewide rescue teams are at San Luis Reservoir this weekend.

Nova was leaning back in apprehension as her handler was pulling her forward toward a search and rescue helicopter Saturday off the San Luis Reservoir.

The 16-month-old female K9 trained for rescues had never been so close to a noisy helicopter, said handler Robin Calderwood from the California Rescue Dog Association and Fresno County Sheriff’s Office.

But after Nova was lifted into the helicopter during a training exercise, she seemed to calm down and get used to the whipping winds and loud engine noise. That’s what Calderwood wanted.

“This training helps us work out the kinks for when we respond,” Calderwood said, noting that K9 units may need to load on helicopters to respond in the Sierra Nevada and other tough-to-reach areas. “The faster we get into (the helicopter), the better.”

Air K9 familiarization is just one of 37 activities and classes that hundreds of first responders from all over California, and even from Colorado, are participating in Saturday and Sunday at San Luis Creek State Park.

The classes are part of SAREX, an annual statewide training expo, hosted this year by the Merced County Sheriff’s Office, Cal OES and California State Parks.

In addition to air operations, search and rescue teams learned about medical responses, recovery of human remains and death scene preservation, man tracking and equines. Newer technologies, such as drones and remote operated underwater vehicles, also were taught.

“The advantage of bringing everyone together, there is familiarity,” Sheriff Vern Warnke said. “We train the same way. So that way when we go to places, they’re taught the same things.”

Saturday started off with an opening ceremony for the event, followed by a static air operations display. Sheriff’s deputies and volunteers served lunch to hundreds of visitors. “Legendary” Yosemite search and rescue guru John Dill was scheduled to give a keynote address Saturday evening to talk about his experiences from the Sierra Nevada.

“These are things we can’t just do at any time,” said Michael Medina from the Madera County Sheriff’s Department Search and Rescue team. “We get an opportunity to work with others.”

This isn’t the first time Merced County hosted the SAREX event, Merced Sheriff’s Deputy Daryl Allen said. But this year’s location at the San Luis Reservoir and state park site is unique.

“It gives us access to those foothills … hundreds of acres we can go out there and train,” Allen said, adding that there was access to large bodies of water for boating and diving exercises.

Warnke said next year the SAREX event will be held in El Dorado County.


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