Malibu Rescuers Face Another Harrowing Year

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Man Breaks Leg at Malibu Rock Pool

If the first three weeks of 2015 are any indication, the Malibu Search and Rescue Team will be busy. It’s already been called for 11 rescue missions, and if there are any more calls in January, they will be on pace for a record year. 

The Los Angeles County Sheriff ’s Department Search and Rescue teams reported that 2014 was a record-breaking life-saving year, marking a whopping 597 missions, a 20 percent increase from 2013. Rescues involve everything from missing hikers, motorcycle and vehicle crashes over the sides of highways, cliff rescues and dog rescues.

Reserve Capt. David Katz, also the public information officer for the Malibu Search & Rescue (SAR) team, reports that 2014 was its third-highest rescue year on record. In 2011, the area saw 128 rescues; 2012 saw 117; 2013 saw 93 and 2014 had 97. 

Malibu’s SAR jurisdiction covers 187 square miles of the Santa Monica Mountains from the Los Angeles/Ventura County line to Pacific Palisades, the east face of the Santa Susana Mountains and the contract cities of Westlake Village, Agoura Hills, Malibu, Calabasas and Hidden Hills. 

“Peak season tends to be January to May,” Katz said. “That’s the time when we have the least amount of daylight and the temperatures are temperate and you get people going hiking late in the day and get stranded on a cliff or get lost, and if you’re out in pitch black and have no lighting device, you can’t see anything and could fall off a cliff.” 

Katz added that in the last couple of years they’ve tracked the residences of the people they’ve rescued. For the most part, virtually everyone they rescue is from out of town. 

“That’s a significant number,” he said. 

L.A. County Fire Dept. Battalion 5 Chief Anthony Williams echoes Katz’s thoughts on 2014. He’s noticing that the agencies are spending more time not necessarily doing rescues, but helping hikers who are not prepared. 

“They will go on a walk and not realize the Santa Monica Mountains are really challenging,” he said. “This isn’t some nature walk.” 

Williams noted a couple last February who wanted to see the sunset and hiked above a pond at Malibu Creek State Park wearing light clothes. The couple got cold and stranded, and rescue personnel had to be sent to aid the hikers down from a precarious area. 

“That’s the trend I’m seeing,” Williams said. “Just because you can see L.A. from a hilltop doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy or safe. The weather changes so quickly here. Preparation is key. Know your limitations when hiking.”

The weekends are predominantly higher for rescue calls, and about every four days the battalion is getting a call. 

“We have one of the finest models of interagency cooperation,” Williams said. “If we or they get the 9-1-1 call, we’re operating in a unified command at all times.” 

One thing to understand, he noted, is the Malibu SAR does not charge money for their rescue, and the county does not spend money for their rescues. 

“’If they do it’s a nominal amount,” Katz said. “It’s gas for our rescue truck.” 

The rescue of four hikers last February at Malibu Creek State Park was easily the most challenging, Katz recalled, since it occurred during the torrential rainstorms. In the treacherous overnight rescue, the four hikers were airlifted to safety and cited for unsafe recreational use after they found themselves trapped on both sides by a rising creek for some nine hours. 

A remarkable vehicle rescue took place on Nov. 22 to airlift three people who went over the side of Kanan Road south of Tunnel 1, Katz noted. He added that the rescue of a 50-year-old man and his labradoodle in a cliffhanger from a 400-foot cliff near Hume Drive on Nov. 15 was quite memorable. 

In the last seven years, Katz said, they’ve added night vision goggles and infrared handheld devices. 

“We have new types of rescue hardware used for rescue systems,” he said. “Some of the new devices cut down on the amount of time to set up a rope rescue system by a significant amount.” 

The multipurpose rescue tool allows for faster rigging and much less personnel for the task, he said. Newer carabiners are lighter and stronger as well. The team’s litter baskets are now aluminum, as opposed to steel, and are lighter but just as strong. 

Deaths during hiker rescues are relatively rare, Katz said. Deaths from a car over the side are much more common, but still, unless it’s purposefully done, these incidents are also relatively rare. 

The areas of most common hiker injuries are in Malibu Creek State Park and Escondido Falls off Pacific Coast Highway and Winding Way. 

For hiking safety tips and more information on the Malibu SAR, visit their website.