Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

Montrose Search and Rescue – Mine Rescues

Besides all the amazing rescue services the Montrose Search and Rescue team performs – finding lost hikers, snow rescues, wildfire rescues, cars and motorcycles off the mountain roads, and finding crashed airplanes – they also have a mine rescue team, currently the only full team in the state. (Other areas have composite teams, made up of volunteers and professionals from a variety of groups. MSAR is the only mine rescue team that has remained as a unit throughout its nearly 40 years of activity.) As a result, the Montrose team is in demand state-wide, and many of its rescues involve travel.

You might ask, why a mine rescue team in Montrose? We’re not known for our mining history. But a little-known fact of our mountains is that there are probably 100 mines within hiking distance of the Crescenta Valley. Not gold mines, but water mines, all dug in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Water mines work like this: As rain soaks into the mountainsides, it travels underground downhill until it either enters the water table or comes to the surface as a spring. But quite often it gets dammed up behind earthquake faults that run along the mountain range. The early settlers found that they could dig a horizontal tunnel into the mountainside and, when that tunnel pierced the fault line, the dammed-up water behind it would gush out, to be collected at the mine entrance. Most were abandoned with the advent of gas and electric well pumps in the teens and ’20s, but the Crescenta Valley Water District still collects water today from one of these old mines.

Every canyon of our mountains has at least one of these old abandoned water mines, and many have several. After the Station Fire denuded Dunsmore Canyon a few years ago, four open water mines were revealed, mines that had been hidden for a century by poison oak and brush. Over the years these dangerous open mines have attracted kids and curious adults to explore them. It was probably this that motivated the MSAR to jump at the chance to train in underground rescue when the state offered the training in the early ’80s. They were schooled in the use of oxygen and gas detection devices, the use of air tanks, ventilation, and the methodology of shoring-up unstable cavities.

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

Since those early training sessions, the MSAR has found a whole new world of applications for their talents. In an urban area like Los Angeles, underground tunnels are everywhere. Flood control tunnels, utility vaults, aqueduct and sewage tunnels, cavities beneath freeways and bridges, and subway train tunnels. As well, in earthquake-collapsed buildings, unstable tunnels are formed in the rubble that can be approached with many of the same methods used in old mines. Oil-rich land beneath Los Angeles vents methane and hydrogen-sulfide gases that make underground work even more dangerous. In many cases the team must rescue other rescuers who responded to the initial calls for help, but rushed in unprepared.

Here are a few samples of the calls the mine rescue team has responded to: In 1991, an off-road motorcyclist went missing in Riverside County, in an area infamous for the many open vertical shafts that dotted the landscape. The MSAR team used ropes to rappel down several likely shafts, but didn’t find the biker’s body. He was never found.

In 1992, the team responded to a working gypsum mine cave-in in San Diego, where an equipment operator was trapped in the cab of a mine train. About 200 tons of the soft gypsum buried the train, and the MSAR team members tunneled through the soft material, shoring up as they went. They rescued that miner alive.

One of their more complicated rescues took place in 2012 in Anza-Borrego, where a hiker had gotten trapped and died deep in some naturally occurring “mud caves.” Because his body was wedged tightly in a narrow passage, the team had to tunnel to the body from above and below using air-hammers to excavate enough room to extract the deceased explorer.

Obviously, claustrophobia is not an option for this hard-working far-ranging team.