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Pay it Forward

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Like most of Humboldt County and much of the nation, we witnessed with a growing sense of dread last weekend as the story of two young sisters missing from Benbow stretched on, hour by hour.

We at the Journal witnessed as a hastily assembled press conference at 10:30 a.m. on March 2 was delayed due to "developing information." Knowing that Leia and Caroline Carrico, 8 and 5, respectively, had been lost in the dense, rugged woods near their Benbow home for 44 hours at that point — including two rainy nights — we feared the worst. But unlike most of Humboldt County and the nation, we had boots on the ground at the command center.

"They found something," came a text from photographer Mark McKenna. "They just kicked me out of the area where they were looking at the monitors. Not a good sign. They are waiting for some kind of confirmation."

For a moment, our hearts sank. But within about 45 minutes, we were able to confirm that the girls had been found — "alive and well," according to a source — cueing the type of rejoicing that rarely meets our reporting. It was a wonderful moment.

But now that we've all resumed our daily lives, as the Carrico sisters and their parents work to reclaim theirs, we feel the need to remind ourselves what seemed almost inevitable as the sun began to set Saturday night without sign of the girls or as the Sheriff's Office prepared for that 10:30 a.m. press conference with no good news to report: This could have ended much differently.

And we should all remember that a big part of the reason we didn't see that grim end is because of the incredible response to the Carrico family's call for help.

First there was the Southern Humboldt County Technical Rescue Team, a band of unpaid volunteers that was first on scene. Then there was the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office, which initiated an all-hands effort that ran detectives and search team members — including the volunteers of the Humboldt County Sheriff's Posse — ragged in an effort to find the girls. And there was the Office of Emergency Services, which deployed crews — many of them filled with trained volunteers — from as far off as Santa Clara and Placer counties to help two girls in grave danger in Humboldt County.

By 8 a.m. Sunday, the command center at Benbow State Park had 270 volunteers from all over Northern California, people who put their lives on hold at a moment's notice to answer a call for help. That in and of itself is pretty incredible. Add in the fact that the only compensation most of these folks will get is a gas reimbursement and it's enough to bolster one's faith in humanity.

The thing is, some of the organizations that responded to this emergency are hanging on by a shoestring. This weekend, we heard stories of volunteer firefighters chipping in to make sure their fire engines have a full tank of gas. We learned that even the local sheriff's posse is in dire need of recruits. We heard of departments and rescue outfits struggling to keep their ranks filled with people who will not only deploy to an emergency without pay, but who will also spend countless unpaid hours training so they are ready when the need arises.

Take Delbert Chumley IV and Abraham Hill, for instance. Neither was being paid when they spent their Sunday bushwhacking up a ravine south of Benbow in desperate search of two lost girls, just as neither is paid when they show up for training every Saturday to make sure the Piercy Volunteer Fire Department is standing by, ready to help its neighbors in need.

We saw an outpouring of good will and support this weekend, as people throughout the county and nation collectively held its breath while the girls were missing and then celebrated when they were found safe and sound.

Here's the thing: If you really want to thank Chumley and Hill, do so by making a donation to the Piercy Volunteer Fire Department (Send checks payable to "Piercy Fire Protection District" to PO Box 206, Piercy, CA 95587.) Or, if you're able bodied, consider joining a volunteer fire department or rescue organization near you. In Humboldt, you can start by looking at the Humboldt County Sheriff's Posse or the Southern Humboldt County Technical Rescue Team.

These organizations answered our call last weekend. We need to make sure to sustain them so they're ready when the next one comes.

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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