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Coquitlam Search and Rescue readies its 50th year: Finding land for its own centre

Coquitlam SAR looks to recruit and celebrate 50 years in 2022 — as well as find land for a dedicated hub.

When Helena Michelis was growing up on Burke Mountain, she would often hear the sound of the Coquitlam Search and Rescue (SAR) chopper passing over her family home.

Eight years ago, at the encouragement of her friends, the nature lover decided to sign up with the group as a volunteer.

Three years ago, she was named as its vice president.

In September, Michelis was elected as the organization’s president — the first time the 57-member team has had a woman in the top job — taking over from Tom Zajac.

Now, the cohort is eyeing the next three years of Michelis’ mandate as they respond to the booming number of backcountry visitors as well as mark a major milestone.

Speaking to Coquitlam council last week with newly elected vice president Stu Fleming, and with the Tri-City News on Monday, Michelis said 2021 “wasn’t as bad” as 2020, the year that the pandemic started and residents began to explore their hometowns in earnest.

One reason for the slight downtick? The partial trail closures at Buntzen Lake in Anmore.

The mountainous area around the BC Hydro reservoir is a hot spot for hikers and runners and one that Coquitlam SAR frequents, along with Belcarra and Minnekhada regional parks, Indian Arm, Pitt Lake, Eagle Ridge, Burke Mountain and around the Coquitlam watershed.

Still, there are other undeveloped areas on the team’s radar that will also become popular soon for outdoor recreational enthusiasts: Widgeon March Regional Park and Pinecone-Burke Provincial Park, both regions where the City of Coquitlam is planning to increase tourism over the coming years.

Michelis hopes to meet with officials from Metro Vancouver and BC Parks in the near future to ensure Coquitlam SAR has access, once they are fully open to the public.

Still, getting enough feet on the ground — or in the water or air — to respond to incidents or provide mutual aid is also a big focus for next year, Michelis said. In the spring, SAR hopes to launch a recruitment campaign to boost its numbers, especially with female volunteers.

Of its 45 active field members, only seven are women.

As well, the team is looking to update its strategic plan and, with its 50th anniversary around the corner, it will also signal a new chapter as it launches a campaign for land.

Of the 79 ground search and rescue groups in B.C., Coquitlam’s is one of the few — if not the only — teams in the province without its own dedicated building.

Currently based at Firehall #1, Coquitlam SAR's space is limited, especially as Coquitlam Fire Rescue builds its training tower in the middle of the Pinetree Way site. Fire officials also have plans to convert the portable with the training room, squeezing out SAR’s cramped storage area.

“Our population is growing and so is the fire department,” Michelis said, looking around the site. “We need to find somewhere else to go, but not too far away from here.”

Ideally, SAR would like to build its own hub on donated or Crown land in the City Centre neighbourhood, north of Lougheed Highway, to be close to the mountains.

There, it could hold its training sessions (held each Tuesday and one weekend each month) in swift water, rope and avalanche rescues; hypothermia; public safety lifeline leadership; First Aid; and stretcher packaging (for spinal cord and lower limb trauma), among other things.

The new centre could hold its vehicles and technical gear — such as its 22’ jet rescue boat that it acquired in July and used for the Sumas–Prairie floods — and five mountain eBikes, purchased in May with grants from the Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam and Port Moody foundations, as well as the villages of Anmore and Belcarra, and accountant Sharon Perry who was marking her business’ anniversary.

So far, the eBikes have been deployed 10 times, totalling 43 volunteer hours.

The helicopter, which is used on contract with Talon Helicopters and Valley Helicopters for long-line rescues and training exercises, can remain at Firehall #1, she said.

A Terry Fox Secondary graduate who works in the building industry, Michelis said she expects the fundraiser will have a target of $1 million to get the centre up.

The team is modelling its structure after Kent-Harrison SAR’s, which recently went up for $600,000, as well as Mt. Arrowsmith’s on Vancouver Island; both groups are similar in size to Coquitlam’s.

At the Dec. 13 committee-in-council meeting, Coquitlam Coun. Chris Wilson praised the team for its professionalism and for being “so well organized and so

respected” as it trains, saves lives and raises funds.

• To donate to Coquitlam Search and Rescue or learn about the 10 essentials for hikers and trip planning, visit


  • incidents: 71 (537 volunteer hours)
  • exercises: 145 (980 volunteer hours)
  • events: 67 (3,130 volunteer hours)
  • total activities: 283 (4,649 volunteer hours)