In the treacherous Mount Baldy region of the San Gabriel Mountains, which spans across Western San Bernardino County and Northern Los Angeles County, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department (SBCSD) plays a critical role in locating and rescuing stranded hikers.
The region is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture U.S. Forest Service (USFS), but the SBCSD has stepped in to assist due to staffing, resource and funding challenges faced by the USFS. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has shouldered some of the responsibility and there is some overlap in resources, said the Public Affairs Division of SBCSD.
In January, an accomplished mountaineer and actor, Julian Sands, went missing in the Mount Baldy area and was later found deceased. In recent years, the sheriff’s department has conducted more than 100 search and rescue operations for missing hikers, with more than 10 fatalities.
According to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, in January and February 2023, 15 hikers were injured and lost, and two hikers lost their lives on the mountain. These rescue operations involve a significant deployment of deputies, volunteers and expensive air assets.
In the past, the department has spent $3 million on these operations, with minimal reimbursement, “despite the assistance provided to individuals from various counties in Southern California,” stated San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus.
Along with the financial costs, rescue missions are also dangerous for those involved. In 2019, Tim Staples, 32, and a nine-year search and rescue veteran, was one of 126 volunteers searching for a missing hiker in Mount Baldy. Staples became separated from the group and was later found deceased after suffering a fatal fall.
To enhance safety on Mount Baldy, the sheriff’s department has engaged with the USFS, proposing measures such as temporary mountain closures during unsafe conditions and the implementation of a permit process to track the number of hikers on the mountain.
Additionally, the sheriff’s department would like the USFS to educate the public on essential hiking skills like navigation, lack of cell phone service, first aid, nutrition, hydration, emergency shelter, and proper equipment — all of which are common factors that contribute to hikers getting lost or injured.
Dicus is disappointed that the proposed measures have not been implemented despite numerous discussions with USFS, but is committed to continuing search and rescue efforts as a “moral obligation” to the community. He further hopes with the support of Rep. Judy Chu, whose jurisdictions include the Mount Baldy region, that legislation can be implemented to save lives.