November 04, 2002 11:00 pm

By Gary Fletcher

Observer Staff Writer

WALLOWA — Numerous questions are being asked about the circumstances surrounding a Wallowa woman who was found alive after being lost eight days in the mountains.

The length of time that Mischelle Hileman spent in the woods with temperatures dipping into the single digits was a record for Wallowa County, to the knowledge of Matthew Marmor, Wallowa County Emergency Program manager.

Wallowa County Search and Rescue members returned to the search area nine miles northeast of Wallowa Monday to look for answers as to how and why Hileman, 39, became lost while hunting.

On Sunday, Oct. 27, her father dropped Hileman off to walk about 45 minutes uphill along a sturdy five-wire-strand barbed-wire fence. Why then, did she end up a mile away downhill and downstream along a different, dilapidated fence?

Such answers won't be known until Hileman can tell her story. She's in critical but stable condition at St. Alphonsus Hospital in Boise.

During a rescue, patients are not questioned but kept calm, even if they are alert and in good spirits, as was Hileman when she was hoisted up out of McAlister Creek and into an Oregon Army National Guard helicopter.

It is also unknown why dogs tracked a scent northwest to Tope Creek. Hileman was found to the northeast.

Why did Hileman survive? She told a rescuer that one essential she always had was her Timex Iron Man watch, which she could use as a night light.

The most powerful survival tool, though, is one's brain. Marmor credits Hileman with an outstanding job of thinking to protect her body temperature to survive.

Three different beds were found on the steep slope, where she apparently had dug in, piled rocks in a wall and covered herself with branches.

Search and Rescue team members return to the scene as a part of the process of evaluation and learning to be more effective.

Hileman's parents, Jan and Denny Hileman, issued a statement thanking Wallowa County residents for their "tremendous outpouring of support for the recovery of our daughter."

"Within minutes after getting (the) call, the Search and Rescue Unit was on the scene with people and a dog," the Hilemans said. "They worked around the clock despite ... extremely cold temperatures, snow, sleet and rain. ...

"The tremendous outpouring of support from merchants, churches, organizations and individuals — too numerous to mention — sustained us both physically and mentally through this ordeal.

"We thank you one and all from the bottom of our hearts," the Hilemans said.

Marmor also expressed appreciation for the community's outpouring of food and volunteers. About 77 volunteers were available Wednesday when helicopters could first fly after the snowstorm.

By Thursday night, the urgency had declined, Marmor said.

About 90 percent of the people lost in Wallowa County are found alive in the first couple of days, he said. After five long days, searchers needed a rest and returned to town with equipment and supplies that someone would have had to maintain in the freezing temperatures.

Over Friday and Saturday, 13 members of the Search and Rescue unit returned to check high-priority areas.

On Friday, the Hileman family and friends continued the grid search.

Sunday morning almost to the hour that she went missing the previous Sunday, a friend found Hileman.

Marmor is delighted that the missing woman was found alive, and was glad to see all the extra volunteers.

Before the next major search, Marmor said he would be pleased if some of these people volunteered to become part of the Search and Rescue team.

"It would make a huge impact," he said.

Not all volunteers have to slog in and out of canyons. People are needed for a variety of logistical support niches, from typing and shuttling searchers to putting equipment away and fueling rigs for people coming from the field.

More dog teams would be helpful so that multiple areas could be checked immediately, Marmor said.

Persons interested in volunteering can call Marmor at 426-4543, extension 48.