Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

Montrose Search and Rescue – A Rescue During the Mill Fire


I’ve written before about how the members of the Montrose Search and Rescue team (MSAR) often are called during natural disasters. Such was the case during 1975’s Mill Fire. This story comes from MSAR team member Fred Koegler, a team member in 1975 who is still a team member today.

On Sunday, Nov. 23 Koegler from his house saw the smoke rising behind Mt. Lukens. At that point Koegler had no idea how big the fire was. He drove a short way up Big Tujunga Canyon, saw the flames spreading and hurried back. He got home just in time to receive a call from the MSAR team to head over to Tujunga to begin helping with evacuations as the fire was headed down Big Tujunga toward homes. The team assembled at the detention camp, where the fire command center had been set up.

Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
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Meanwhile, up in the Arroyo Seco, hikers were happily enjoying fall hiking weather, blissfully unaware of the massive fire headed their way. One hiker was standing at the top of Switzer Falls looking down. His boot hit a patch of moss and over the cliff he went. He tumbled the 100 feet to the base of the falls, breaking an arm and a leg. Other hikers made it to a pay phone to call in the need for a rescue. The sheriff department helicopter was dispatched and two paramedics and a doctor were lowered to the victim, lying at the bottom of the waterfall deep in the canyon. I’ll let Fred tell the rest of the story:

“At 4 p.m., while at the detention camp, we received a call for a rescue at Switzer Falls where a hiker had slipped on moss and fell 100 feet to the bottom of the falls. A sheriff helicopter came to pick up five of our team members, including myself, Al Magee and John McKently, who then joined the helicopter crew to expedite the rescue.

“We flew up ‘Big T’ to Switzer and noticed that the fire had advanced up to Josephine Peak. We were landed at Switzer where paramedics had been flown in earlier to stabilize the patient.

“MSAR was called in to set up a 3-1 hauling system (ropes) to lift the patient out of the canyon. At that point, after the victim had been treated by the paramedics, he was placed in a litter. Then the team members along with a few hikers helped pull the litter up the face of the falls in order to bring him up to the top.

“While hauling the victim up the falls the team looked over their shoulders and noticed the fire was rapidly encroaching toward their location and the smoke was becoming thicker. Getting the patient out as quickly as possible was imperative, which meant the team needed to work faster in order to get everyone out safely. The patient was loaded on the helicopter and flown to Verdugo Hills Hospital while the team was left behind to wait for evacuation, which would take at least a half hour or more.

“While waiting for the helicopter to return we decided to hike up onto higher ground near a ridge where we would be easier to spot by the helo. However, the smoke was increasing and it was becoming dark so our visibility was poor. As the helicopter finally approached to pick us up, one of our team members, Al Magee, recalls the only thing we could see was a yellow landing spotlight shining down on us through the smoke and blue fames coming out from the engine.

“After a precarious one wheel landing all five us jumped in the helo. As we flew out of the canyon, we could see exploding propane tanks and the lookout tower on Josephine Peak in flames. As soon as we landed back at Camp 15 most of us dispersed back to defend our homes.”

And, in Koegler’s case, his home was right on the edge of the fire storm that swept in that night. From one disaster to another!