Helicopter rescues for Orange County hikers skyrocket because of coronavirus

by in News

Helicopter rescues for hikers in remote areas of Orange County have more than doubled compared to recent years, and first responders are urging people to be more prepared when going outside.

There were 117 rescue calls from May to July – a 225% increase compared to the same period in 2018 and in 2019, fire and law enforcement officials said at a Wednesday, Aug. 26, press conference at Fullerton Airport.

The Orange County Fire Authority and the Sheriff’s Department both use helicopters to make rescues in remote areas – but that takes those resources away from other emergencies such as fires.

  • OCFA chief Brian Fennessy speaks during a press conference at OCFA Station 41 in Fullerton on Wednesday, August 26, 2020. The Orange County Fire Authority and Sheriff’s Department have responded to an average of 225% more remote rescue calls than in the same period in the last two years and held a joint press conference to caution hikers to be more careful. (Photo by Kyusung Gong/Contributing Photographer)



Since the pandemic broke out, there has been a spike in hiking, officials said.

“With gyms closed and options for exercise limited, many people have been recreating outdoors on local hiking trails,” Sheriff Don Barnes said.

“While this is a great alternative for staying active, the combination of the increase of 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,” he explained.

This May, there were 45 such calls, compared to nine in 2018 and seven in 2019.

Many recent calls for remote rescues were because hikers didn’t bring enough water – or they just didn’t want to walk back, Fire Chief Brian Fennessy said.

“They’re not prepared by either not wearing the right footwear, not bringing enough water, or not being in the physical shape that they think they are,” he said. “People tend to underestimate the conditions of our mountain and trail environment.”

The officials stressed that hikers need to take a lot of water to the trails, especially during hot weather.

“Just the other day, we were out on the San Juan Trail (in the Cleveland National Forest) for three hikers who had said that they were lost and stranded,” said Capt. Dan Dufrene, who pilots helicopters for the Orange County Fire Authority. “Turned out, we made access to them, and all they needed was water.”

Deputy Drew McMillan, who pilots helicopters for the Sheriff’s Department, said he’s rescued beginners to advanced hikers. He urged folks to get hydrated well before the hiking begins, at least 12 to 24 hours beforehand.

“If you know you’re going to go on a hike, start drinking a lot of water,” McMillan said. “It takes time for the body to absorb all of that water; if you’re out on the trail and you’re feeling thirsty, you’re already dehydrated and it may be already too late.”

McMillan also recommended that folks have at least one cellphone that is charged and dedicated to making potential emergency calls.

He also urged people to take note of what trail they are hiking, in addition to any landmarks that could help first responders locate them if they do call 911 for assistance.

Telling someone where you’ll be hiking and when you’re expected to return will help if something unexpected happens during a hike, McMillan said, in addition to wearing bright colors in case rescuers need to search for you.

“You can’t be prepared enough,” Dufrene said.