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Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

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The History of the Montrose Search and Rescue Team – Our Local Heroes

We live on the doorstep of a huge wilderness, the Angeles National Forest. This vast mountainous area is crisscrossed with miles of twisting, narrow mountain roads, and a confusing maze of hiking trails. The hundreds of square miles of nearly vertical mountainsides and deep ravines are made up of fractured and decomposing granite rock, which slides and falls regularly, making for some of the most treacherous hiking in the world. Add to that, this wilderness is immediately adjacent to a huge city with millions of people seeking recreation. This combination ensures that nearly every weekend, nearly every day in fact, some fragile human is going to get lost, drive off a mountainside, get trapped in snow, or all three. Our giving and generous community has responded to this by volunteering to rescue these people. In fact, we have a group dedicated to just that task: the Montrose Search and Rescue Team.

The Montrose Search and Rescue Team is one of the premier search and rescue teams in Southern California. I say “premier” because it is one of the best and one of the first – if not the first – in California. It can trace its beginnings back to the dark days of WWII, when the Pacific coast expected to be attacked at any moment. In early 1942, just after Pearl Harbor, the Montrose Sheriff Station was designated as the headquarters for the Air Raid Wardens program. Volunteers from the community flocked to the program to provide rescue services and fire suppression for the expected bombings. But as the war progressed and the attacks became less likely, the air wardens busied themselves with mountain rescues. When the war ended, these local volunteers found that they had enjoyed the training and camaraderie, enjoyed the rescues they had performed, and didn’t want to disband. Nor did the county want to lose these dedicated volunteers.

So the County reformed them into auxiliary deputy sheriffs, with an official mission as a “disaster law enforcement organization.”

Interestingly enough, the team’s development was inextricably tied to the completion of the Angeles Crest Highway. In 1946, construction began anew on Angeles Crest Highway. As this major highway pushed farther into the wilderness, the team got busier and busier with mountain rescues. In 1947 the Lion’s Club bought the team a jeep, along with a trailer full of rescue supplies. By 1950, it was decided to fully deputize the volunteers, and the newly named Sheriff Emergency Reserve team was issued badges in a ceremony at Mountain Oaks Lodge (yes, the same one that had been a speakeasy just 20 years previously).

The Angeles Crest was completed in ’56 and the Big Tujunga in ’58, thus ensuring job security for the rescue team. Car crashes and lost hikers resulted in constant calls for the rescue team. In ’65 they became the Montrose Search and Rescue team, as they have been ever since. Members were now at the top of their game and nationally recognized, a status they have enjoyed ever since. They are still volunteers, but receive intense training. They go to the Sheriff Academy and become badged reserve deputies, become certified EMTs and receive specialized mountain rescue training, all while still doing their day jobs as teachers, store clerks and insurance salesmen. It’s not just for men either, as there have been several women team members over the years, two of them serving as captains of the team. This team is a testament to the saying “Old guys rule!” as most team members are, well, “mature.” Many are in their 50s and 60s, and a few are still serving in their 70s. They are on call all day and night, every day of the year, to respond and save human lives. They are true heroes of our community.

Mike Lawler is the former  president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at lawlerdad@yahoo.com.

Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at
lawlerdad@yahoo.com.

Over the next few months I will write about some of their more thrilling rescues. They are called on constantly to perform feats of daring, risking their lives. Those stories need to be told, and you will read them here.

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