OC Rescue Operations Spike During Pandemic

August 28, 2020 Updated: August 28, 2020

An extreme increase in search and rescue missions in Orange County, California, is diverting needed resources from wildfire relief efforts, county officials say.

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said during an Aug. 26 press conference that there had been a 225 percent increase in the number of “remote rescues” in the county compared to the same period over the last two years. The rescue operations threaten fire relief efforts by diverting needed helicopters.

“The combination of an increase in the number of hikers and the excessive heat we have been experiencing has led to a record number of search and rescue calls in Orange County,” Barnes said.

“This level of call volume may not be sustainable, and even more importantly means many people are recreating outdoors without being prepared.”

Many county residents have turned to local hiking trails because gyms are closed and options for exercise are limited, Barnes said.

County fire officials, who also spoke at the Fullerton Airport press conference, said helicopters from both the Sheriff’s Department and the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) are used to respond to wildfire calls.

When a search and rescue mission is called in, the first responders must drop what they are doing and attend to it—even if that means abandoning a dangerous vegetation fire that could potentially affect nearby residents, they said.

If first responders don’t provide services to these rescues, they could turn into genuine emergencies, they added.

OCFA Capt. Dan Dufrene said, “We will always put life before property. And if there is a rescue call, we will respond to that instead of, or in lieu of, responding to a vegetation fire.”

Dufrene said many Fire Authority operations could have easily been avoided if hikers had been just a little prepared.

“Just the other day, we were out on the San Juan Trail for three hikers who had said they were lost and stranded. It turns out when we actually made access to them all they needed was water,” Dufrene said.

The officials advised hikers to better prepare by drinking plenty of water before and during their outings, and by designating a cell phone for emergency use only instead of using it for photos and draining the battery.

They also recommended that hikers research their destinations and let someone know their plans beforehand.

OCFA Chief Brian Fennessy said officials were “appealing to the community, to those who like to go out to recreate.”

“Have fun, but be prepared,” Fennessy said.