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Widening search for missing Fairbanks search-and-rescue volunteer

Craig Medred
Courtesy Alaska State Troopers

Subfreezing temperatures had already begun to lock Interior Alaska in ice for the winter when 53-year-old Gerald DeBerry volunteered to join the search for a woman who'd gone missing Sunday night along the remote Steese Highway. She was found safe Monday near Frozen Foot Creek about 70 miles north of Fairbanks.

And then rescuers noticed DeBerry was missing. Nobody's seen or heard from the 53-year-old Fairbanksan since. While the search for 38-year-old Melinda "Mindy" Stratz of Utah ended with everyone celebrating her rescue, there are growing worries about DeBerry.

He spent Monday night out with temperatures dropping into the 20s. Alaska State Troopers had a full-scale search for him organized for him by Tuesday, but found no sign of DeBerry or his green four-wheeler.

As of Wednesday afternoon, they were still searching without luck as another cold night fast approached.

The drama at Frozen Foot Creek, according to trooper reports, all began to unfold around 2 a.m. Monday when they were first notified that Stratz had separated from friends during a four-wheeler ride back off the Steese on a trail into the wilderness. Her brother, Mitchell Stratz, called from the Long Creek Lodge north of Fairbanks to say he had thoroughly searched a trail they'd been riding near Smith Creek, but found no sign of his sister, her red four-wheeler with a trailer, or the Jack Russell terrier who'd come along on the ride as her companion.

Trooper led searchers had better luck. By late Monday, Mindy had been found. But "it (was) reported to AST that a volunteer searcher ... was unaccounted for,'' according to trooper reports. DeBerry was that volunteer. He had been last seen about four miles from a trail head after rescuers received word that Stratz had been found, according to troopers.

Searchers who went back to the spot found neither DeBerry nor his four-wheeler. Troopers then notified the Rescue Coordination Center at Joint BaseĀ Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage that there was a problem and began organizing another search. On Tuesday, troopers sent their helicopter, Helo-1, and an Alaska Wildlife Trooper Supercub to the scene.

DeBerry, troopers said, was believed to have "good knowledge of the area. It is reported that he was wearing an insulated flannel shirt over blue jeans and a sweatshirt."

Overnight temperatures, however, were cold. When searchers failed to find DeBerry by nightfall Tuesday, and the cold settled over the Interior once again, troopers called in further help from the Alaska Air NationalĀ Guard in Anchorage with its crack team of rescue specialists.

Alaska State Troopers remained at the search command post Tuesday night at Mile 66 of the Steese Highway while a night-flying Pavehawk helicopter from Elmendorf continued to search between refueling, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.

The National Guard helicopter has FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) heat-sensing capabilitiesĀ that make it possible to detect warm bodies -- humans, moose or other animals -- beneath the helicopter. The technology is especially effective in a cold environment, where warm objects really jump out from the cold background.

But there was, again, no sign of DeBerry. The search further expanded on Wednesday. Two trooper helicopters and two trooper planes were in the air joined by the Alaska Guard and aircraft from Elmendorf Air Base south of the search area. The News-Miner reported there was also a ground search party of about 10 people in the field.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com