Woolsey Fire Rounds Out Four-Decade Career for SAR Volunteer

Kevin Ryan during a rescue as a member of the Malibu Search and Rescue Team

As the destructive Woolsey Fire wreaked havoc throughout Malibu and beyond, Malibu Search and Rescue team member Kevin Ryan wound up his nearly 40-year career as a volunteer with the organization, slogging a grueling 48-hour week crisscrossing the region putting out spot fires and rescuing horses. The Woodland Hills resident needed to keep his own home safe, but still managed 12-hour days protecting the homes and property of strangers.

That’s the way of life for the 65-year-old Ryan, who began volunteering as a teenager.  Growing up in Malibu West, Ryan recalled a 1970 firestorm that swept through the mountains to the Colony. That disaster inspired him to fill sandbags for the fire department. As a newlywed in the late ‘70s, Ryan saw an ad recruiting for the Malibu Mountains Search and Rescue team. He and his wife, Cindy, were accepted and passed the Sheriff’s Academy training, becoming the first husband and wife rescue team members. 

The newly retired Ryan recalled one of his first memorable rescues with his wife. It was a car over the side of Kanan Dume Road. In 1981, a family was bringing home a newborn and “someone crossed the double yellows. The mother swerved, spun and went 250 feet over the side. It was a Volvo so it held up pretty good, but the baby went out the sunroof. Miraculously, everyone survived.  When we got on scene we got the father up holding the baby and then we went down and got the mother and their other son.  It was bizarre that the baby actually survived after two weeks in the hospital then through the sunroof and into the brush.” Cindy Ryan retired soon after to become a mother herself.  The couple now has two grown children.

Ryan and his team regularly rappelled down cliffs and dropped from helicopters to save crash victims, sometimes in systems he personally devised. It’s the antithesis of his former employment in the aerospace, auto and communications industry. Ryan also recently retired as the City of Hidden Hills Emergency Services Coordinator.

Even on regular patrol, MSAR members can encounter danger—as Ryan and his partner did in 2005 on flood watch in Topanga Canyon. In unstable weather, the pair narrowly missed being crushed by a massive boulder. In the dark, “We noticed a telephone pole moving and thought it was an earthquake. If we were just 20 seconds earlier we would have been crushed or forced over the side. It took over a week to remove that rock.”

As the “project guy” for MSAR, the grandfather of four put in countless hours—volunteering as many as four days a week: “I generally put in enough hours that in a couple of months I did my requirement for the year.” 

Ryan was instrumental in building the department to what it is today—one of the foremost and technically advanced search and rescue teams in the country. 

“When I first joined the department, we only had one truck,” Ryan recalled. He refurbished it and started fundraising to eventually build a fleet of 11 trucks, quads, side-by-sides and a mobile command post—three of his design. Ryan has held positions from training sergeant, lieutenant, team captain and retired with the credential Commander for Search and Rescue staff for all of Los Angeles County.

The commander fondly says of his team members: “They’re all great. They’ve got skills that are just astronomical. One of our guys is a fantastic man tracker and helped track down the suspect in the Malibu Creek State Park/Malibu Canyon shootings. He found his footprint at a burglary near the community center and tracked it all the way to where he was hiding. We’ve got great amounts of talent—a doctor, a nurse practitioner, lawyers, technical people who are on par with just about anything anyone else can do.  It’s quite amazing. I’ll miss putting things together for them.” But now, family calls.  

Ryan said he looks forward to babysitting a grandchild out of state and public service there as well. 

“I love it—I’ve earned $39 at it so far,” Ryan joked, referring to a technicality of earning one dollar for each year of service.

“I’m not overstating it when I say that Kevin has been a legend in the Los Angeles search and rescue community and will be sorely missed,” said MSAR Team Leader David Katz. “His shoes may be filled, but there will be four or five people who have to squeeze into them together to do what Kevin did himself.”