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King County Search & Rescue Air Patrol may need its own rescue — from budget ax

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NEAR SNOQUALMIE PASS, Wash. --The blades of the UH-1 Huey helicopter beat mercilessly above. The trees bend with the downward wind. Dust flies everywhere. A thick wire cable lowers a medic from hundreds of feet above to tend to a wounded hiker.

The scene along the rushing Snoqualmie River is just a drill, but what's not a drill is the budget cuts the King County Sheriff's Office has to make soon.

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King County Air Patrol practices lifting a victim to safety. Photo: Tim Joyce/Q13 News.

There's lots of dangers that these crews face when they help seriously injured hikers from precarious places in the wilds of Washington state.

Hovering a helicopter is never easy, but it's made even more difficult near mountains that can create their own weather. Winds can change directions without warning and they can gust unpredictably.

"When you deal with the conditions in the mountains, you have to be on the top of your game," says pilot Keith Potter. He's been with the Search & Rescue Air Patrol for a dozen years and has been flying for three decades. "You never let you guard down. You always worry."

But there's a bigger worry that hangs over these exercises designed to get team members working seamlessly in the event of a real emergency: it's the budget for next year.

King County Sheriff John Urquhart tells Q13 News he has to cut at least $3.8 million from his 2017 budget. The choices are tough ones: Marine Unit, Air Patrol or cutting deputies on the street. He says the last thing he wants to do is cut deputies in uniform, but says the cuts have to come from somewhere.

The Search & Rescue Air Patrols are the only 24-hour law enforcement aviation service in our region. Last year, the teams from King County Air Patrol rescued 25 people who were seriously injured.

Sgt. Jason Houck with the patrol says these are people who might have died or injured themselves further trying to get to medical attention.

"If we’re coming out to get you, you’re not having a good day," says Houck. "You're hurt in a bad way."

These air rescues don't come cheaply. It costs about $500,000 annually for fuel and maintenance on the King County Sheriff's Office's two helicopters. That sounds like a lot of money, but for every man, woman and child in the county, that amounts to about 24 cents per person.

If that emergency lifeline goes away next year, that means that our area will rely on Coast Guard or Washington State National Guard to help in these type of rescues, but only when those resources are available.

The King County Council has the final say in these budget matters and while they will get proposed budget cuts this summer, decisions will be voted upon in November.