When most people think of rescue operations in Kern County, the Kern River is probably the first location that pops to mind.
Every summer swimmers or rafters find themselves in trouble in the swift-moving, deadly river, necessitating volunteers with the Sheriff's Office's Search and Rescue unit to grab their gear and get them to safety.
But there's plenty to be done during the winter months, too, from heading into rugged, mountainous areas to hikers who become stranded to retrieving runaway children in the desert night.
Whatever the situation, there are always volunteers on call ready to suit up and face at-times daunting conditions to bring someone to safety.
The county's search and rescue unit has nine teams and 215 volunteers spread over Kern County's more than 8,000 square miles.
Sgt. Zach Bittle, a search and rescue coordinator, stated their mission simply: "We rescue people, not things."
So if you find yourself stranded in the Tehachapi mountains, rescuers will get you to safety, but you'll have to find other means of retrieving your vehicle. The team isn't showing up with a tow truck, just the necessities for the safe retrieval of people.
Teams are composed of at least two people, more typically four. Each volunteer is responsible for the purchase and maintenance of their own gear.
And the gear doesn't come cheap. As Capt. Brian Baskin of the Kern Valley team said, it doesn't pay to be stingy when it comes to the purchase of items that are supposed to keep you safe in remote areas. The hardier the clothing, boots, backpack, the better.
For example, on a recent afternoon Bittle showed off a 75-liter Gregory Baltoro backpack. It can hold anything necessary for a rescue operation, from food and water, a 0-degree rated sleeping bag, inflatable sleeping pad, extra clothing, compasses, hiking poles, shelter equipment and the small but powerful JetBoil camping stove that can rapidly bring water to a boil.
A volunteer needs clothing and gear suitable for both freezing conditions and the brutal Bakersfield summer heat. Baskin said a new volunteer will start out spending a minimum of $500, and over the first few years, adding new pieces, usually pays between $3,000 and $5,000.
The average search and rescue operation lasts fewer than 12 hours, Williams said. But some can go on for days.
For example, teams spent nine days searching for a missing hiker in 2017 in mountainous areas and rainy conditions.
Last month, an 11-year-old California City girl ran away from home. Police believed she may have been trying to reach Highway 14 to get to Lancaster.
Search and rescue teams quickly responded. An 11-year-old out in the elements with temperatures dropping into the 30s at night is a potentially deadly situation.
Sgt. Steve Williams, another search and rescue coordinator, tracked her footprints for 10-and-a-half miles. Rescuers eventually caught up with the child, who survived the night by taking shelter from the cold in a blue plastic barrel, said Senior Deputy Josh Nance.
The girl told them she had planned on hopping a train. She was returned home safely.
Also in January, an attempt by a 33-year-old man and his 53-year-old mother to test their new survival gear near Piute Peak turned dangerous when they became stranded after their vehicle slid off the roadway in the snow.
They spent the night in their vehicle, and the next morning the man decided to hike until he found cell service to call for assistance. He briefly got a signal that lasted just long enough for him to alert authorities to the situation.
Search teams found them and their vehicle in an area covered in a foot-and-a-half of snow. The two were transported off the mountain and into town. They were not in need of medical attention.
Williams said the man and his mother had recently moved from Kentucky to Kern County. Like many people who become lost or stranded, they thought they were prepared.
One of the most recent callouts occurred Thursday night. A team was sent out for a motorist stranded in the snow at Breckenridge Road, Bittle said.
They got halfway up the mountain with a snowcat when they were notified a passing resident managed to tow the stranded motorist to safety.
Those heading into remote, mountainous areas need to do their research, Bittle said. He recommends, among other things, letting others know exactly where you're going and what route you're traveling, using paper maps, packing plenty of water and learning how to obtain accurate GPS locations.
"Most people aren't prepared," he said.
The accuracy of GPS has improved, but it's still not perfect, Bittle said. He said rescuers sometimes get numbers from someone that don't add up. They then use their own experience of those areas to figure out the most likely spot where a person would be.
A common refrain rescuers hear is, "Why not just send up a helicopter?"
The answer: A helicopter is not always useful, or available. And depending on the area and wind speeds, it can be too dangerous.
Williams said the probability of seeing someone from the air is 20 percent, maximum.
If the stranded person is wearing bright orange clothing in an open area, the odds of detection from the air are pretty good. But if that person is wearing black or brown clothing and in an area with dense brush, odds of detection are much lower.
Ground crews have a better chance in those circumstances. And they can use equipment capable of passing over most any terrain.
In addition to snowcats, the search and rescue unit has an Argo vehicle with treads to keep it going over difficult terrain. These vehicles come in handy in the mountain snow and other rugged areas.
So from snowcapped mountains to rushing rivers, bone-dry deserts to muddy forestland, Kern County has it all. And the search and rescue volunteers are prepared for it.
They are called out to roughly 120 incidents a year, Bittle said. Sometimes it's fewer, as in last year with about 87 incidents, and sometimes it's far more — 2017 saw 220 incidents.
But when it comes time to head out, they don't have to wait long to fill a team.
"Here in Kern County, you say something and you have all hands raised," Baskin said.