Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Thursday, Jan. 11 @ 10 a.m. / Emergencies
Weather Forces 'Pause' On Search For Missing Mushroom Picker
(Updated at 8:01 a.m. Friday to correct Deng Vongphachan's name.)
Weather is forcing a pause on the search for a 71-year-old Smith River woman who was reported missing in the Low Divide Road area near Signal Peak about a week ago, the Del Norte County Sheriff said Thursday.
Searchers will likely continue combing the thickly wooded area for Deng Vongphachan on Saturday, though drone flights are planned for today and Friday weather permitting, Sheriff Garrett Scott told the Wild Rivers Outpost. Rescue dogs will likely assist search and rescue volunteers, the sheriff said.
“We had around 30 people per day searching that area,” Scott said. “We’ve located the truck, located the backpack, located the area where she was working and we spread out quite a bit there. We searched everywhere you possibly could in that area. That is extremely thick brush and very steep.”
Scott, who had visited the search area Wednesday evening, said it was snowing. Wind speeds were high enough to damage a rescue tent. And because of the frigid conditions, volunteers are only searching for a few hours before being rotated out for another team.
Scott estimated there were about 30 people per day from multiple agencies searching for Vongphachan. Her family is also helping with the search effort, Scott said.
Vongphachan’s son reported his mother missing at about 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. Jan. 4. Both she and her family had visited the area near the junction of Low Divide Road and Forest Service Road 17N21 for about five years to forage for mushrooms.
Scott, who obtained a search warrant for Vongphachan’s cell phone, said he was able to track her traveling on U.S. 101 up Low Divide Road “right up to the spot where she parked her truck.”
Vongphachan turned her phone off at about 8:56 a.m. — a few hours before she was reported missing — and left it behind in her truck, Scott said. According to him, her family had initially thought she was foraging up the Winchuck River in Oregon.
“Our teams had found the truck up [near] signal peak and then the backpack’s located about 200-300 yards in the brush,” Scott said. “And there’s clear indication she was mushroom picking. There were mushrooms in her backpack and cut mushrooms around the area.”
With 6-8 feet tall huckleberry frush and large trees in the area, Scott said it’s possible Vongphachan may have headed down a creek drainage to find her way to safety if she felt like she was lost. More than likely it would have been the Hardscrabble Creek drainage, he said, a helicopter fly-over of the area failed to turn anything up.
“I flew that personally with Dan Brattain with Cal-Ore Life Flight,” Scott said. “When you fly those areas with a pilot like Dan, he flies low to the point where you can see very well. All the searchers on the ground as we flew, I could see them plain as day. Just immediately you could tell where every searcher was at and I did not see her.”
Searchers from multiple agencies on both sides of the state line have been in the effort to find Vongphachan. This includes volunteers from Trinity, Humboldt, Sonoma and Jackson counties, Scott said. Pelican Bay State Prison also sent officers to help in the search and the U.S. Coast Guard, California Highway Patrol and Cal-Ore Life flight have provided helicopters.