BOULDER, Colo. — Utah Task Force 1 got the call to go to work Sunday amid pouring rain and a flash flood warning for all of Boulder County.
The 75-member specialists from the Utah Urban Search and Rescue Team got word about 7 a.m. that they were being deployed into the hard-hit Lefthand Canyon, an area that leads to the flood-ravaged communities of Jamestown, Lyons and Estes Park.
"They will be doing door-to-door notifications and search operations, and if they come into debris fields, they'll be doing wide-area search operations," said task force commander Keith Bevan.
The Utah group was divided into teams of 10. Two groups, or 20 people, were loaded onto a Chinook helicopter and were going to be dropped off about mid-canyon. But just as they were prepared to take off, heavy rain grounded the chopper and all the crew members had to unload.
Approximately 40 others were taken in three Colorado National Guard trucks to the base of the canyon to begin the same operation from the bottom, and work their way up as far as they could go.
"They are making progress. They are reaching a lot of people and they are evacuating people," task force leader Erik Sandstrom said Sunday. "There's people there that maybe don't understand the scope of the disaster and (don't know) that it might be awhile before any other help can come to them.
Sandstrom said part of their plan is to locate residents and strongly encourage them to leave.
"We've been told to let the residents know this is their chance. The infrastructure is so destroyed, they might not be able to get out on their own or get others to come in for a long time," he said.
"This is one of their last chances to get out. So if they need food, water, medicine, anything, they need to leave the area. They're telling us some of those roads that lead up there, it may be up to a year before they're rebuilt. The infrastructure is completely destroyed."
Bevan said the extent to which the teams search each home, structure or debris field will depend on what they find.
They are making progress. They are reaching a lot of people and they are evacuating people. There's people there that maybe don't understand the scope of the disaster and (don't know) that it might be awhile before any other help can come to them.
–task force leader Erik Sandstrom
"It's considered a hasty search. They'll move rapidly through those search areas. If they come into an area and they knock on a house and they see or hear someone, they will then make entry by any means necessary," Bevan said. "If the house is intact and there is no answer, they will not force entry into the home. They will put a sticker on the window that outlines the premises has been searched, the interior has not and they'll move onto the next structure."
But many of the homes in that area are not in one piece.
"They have numerous structures that half the house is missing. Obviously if half the house is missing, they can check the remainder. They also have a law enforcement officer with them that will enable them to do forced entry if anything indicates they need to make entry into some of those homes," Bevan said.
Utah's crew is one of five urban search and rescue teams called to Colorado. Originally, Utah, Colorado and Nebraska were called. Late Sunday, word was sent for teams in Nevada and Missouri to also travel to the region.
On Saturday, much of the rescue effort by the Colorado National Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency focused on a massive air operation to find stranded residents, many of whom had been physically isolated in their mountain home because of washed out roads and bridges — and cut off from power, water, Internet and phone service. More than 1,200 people were rescued in Boulder County alone on Saturday.
But as the operation transitioned to the urban search and rescue teams, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle cautioned there was a possibility of additional deceased victims being found.
"The cautionary note is this: We have not begun to search collapsed structures, debris piles and wash-outs where we would likely find human remains. And so, I don't want to be pessimistic, but I also want to be realistic about the probability that we will find others. I pray not, hope not. But that's the reality of the situation," he said Saturday.
As of Sunday, there were a total of three confirmed fatalities in Boulder County due to the storm. There were a total of four, and some media organizations reporting a fifth, throughout Colorado.
The total number of missing people in Colorado ranged from 200 to 500 according to various reports.
The Utah team traveled with enough supplies to stay in Colorado for 10 days if necessary, and they could receive additional supplies if the stay is extended.
Utah Task Force 1 consists of firefighters and paramedics from the Unified Fire Authority, Salt Lake City Fire Department and Park City Fire District.
Contributing video: Shara Park