North Shore Rescue, a high-profile volunteer organization often praised for its wilderness search operations, has been targeted by a series of thefts and acts of vandalism that have left police worried lives may be put at risk.
The group, which comes to the aid of missing or injured hikers, skiers and climbers in the rugged North Shore Mountains, has long relied on equipment caches in the backcountry to ensure its teams have gear waiting for them when they trek in to remote locations.
But four times in the past two weeks those locked, and clearly marked emergency caches have been broken open. More than $20,000 worth of valuable equipment has been stolen, or vandalized. At one site, an emergency helicopter pad was also damaged.
"We are very concerned over the frequency of these [incidents]," North Vancouver RCMP Corporal Richard De Jong said Wednesday. "[Tuesday], we went up in the chopper with our forensic officer to seize a few items for examination so we're hopeful they'll come back with some match or some indication of who may be responsible."
Cpl. De Jong said the thieves are taking equipment that could be vital during a rescue mission.
"Ropes, harnesses, safety equipment … sleeping bags. … It's somewhat random," he said of what's been stolen so far. "They are not taking everything just because of the volume, of course, but they are going through everything."
So far, police are mystified by the cache break-ins, which took place at remote locations in Hanes Valley and near Norvan Falls, north of Grouse Mountain.
"Who are these individuals? Are they connected to search and rescue? Is it a crime of opportunity? Is it a vendetta? Is it a copycat?" said Cpl. De Jong of the questions police are asking.
"They took a chain saw to one [cache]. … It does seem malicious. It seems intentional. And we are concerned because this is equipment that is strategically placed in these areas, to assist volunteer workers to rescue and save lives. Without the equipment, lives truly are at risk," he said.
Cpl. De Jong urged anyone who has seen anything suspicious in the North Shore Mountains to contact the RCMP's Crime Stoppers tip line.
"[Report] anything out of the ordinary when you come across people on the hiking trail, exiting the trail head with large amounts of equipment that just doesn't seem normal," he said. "I know a lot of people are keeping their eyes open. The local hiking club is very concerned."
Cpl. De Jong said he's hopeful a tip from the public will help investigators.
"Somebody knows, somebody has stolen property in their possession and we want somebody to come forward and give us some information," he said. "No tip is too small to help solve these things."
A spokesman for North Shore Rescue couldn't be reached immediately for comment, but in a recent blog posting Curtis Jones noted how rescue work can be jeopardized by such thefts.
On July 3rd, he wrote, a rescue team was sent to the Norvan Falls region to help a hiker who had been injured.
"We got lucky on this one," he stated. "It was a nice day, a helicopter was available, and thus the ground response was limited. Had this been at night, or during inclement weather, our members would have had to hike into this location and effect a stretcher evacuation. At this time, that equipment is not in our rescue cache … [because it] was unfortunately rendered useless by senseless theft last week."
Mr. Jones said his group, which operates largely on donations, is "now implementing extensive and costly security features to these caches."