By KAREN BRAINARD
The costs of helicopter rescues at Cedar Creek Falls during the month of June have already surpassed the figures for 2010, said a member of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department aerial support unit.
Known as ASTREA, for Aerial Support to Regional Enforcement Agencies, the unit has two fire/rescue aircraft that have hoist capabilities.
Todd Richardson, lieutenant commander to the sheriff’s ASTREA unit, provided statistics from the past 3½ years at Cedar Creek Falls, saying the estimated costs are most likely on the low side. The season recorded is from June 1 to mid-November, he said.
In 2008, Richardson said six rescues were performed at a cost of about $5,000. He noted that operating costs have increased since then.
ASTREA conducted 20 rescues in 2009 for an estimated price tag of $21,000, according to Richardson.
The following year, 31 rescues were performed with the fire/rescue helicopters at an estimate of $36,000. In addition, Richardson said, there were 17 rescues with ASTREA’s smaller helicopters, used to aid hikers suffering from dehydration, that were not included in that $36,000 figure.
This year, from June 1 to July 6, ASTREA has already conducted 27 rescues at an approximate price tag of $40,000, said Richardson.
Those figures do not include additional emergency personnel on board, he said, and are only ASTREA’s costs. Other costs have been incurred by CalFire and law enforcement.
Richardson presented these figures at a meeting held at San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob’s office on July 6, scheduled coincidentally on the same day a 16-year-old died at the falls. The focus of the meeting was to address the concerns about the trail and included homeowners living near the trailhead and representatives from CalFire, San Diego County, the sheriff’s Ramona substation and Cleveland National Forest.
The falls and the trails to the falls are temporarily closed, pending a better overall management plan by the U.S. Forest Service. The shut down went into effect at midnight July 8.
Cedar Creek Falls, an 80-foot waterfall in the Cleveland National Forest, can be accessed from Thornbush Road in Ramona or from Eagle Peak Road in Julian. When the U.S. Forest Service completed improvements to the steep trail from Ramona earlier this year, Richardson said, “It shifted a lot of that load from Julian to Ramona.”
Richardson noted that the trail is still pretty steep and the temperature can rise 10 to 15 degrees at the bottom. The distance to the falls is about three miles from either side, he said.
On one day in June, he said, from the air they counted about 200 hikers on the trail and that did not include people at the trailhead on Thornbush.
Kids have been seen carrying beer, he said, and drug activity and fights have been reported.
“It is an extremely dangerous trail area,” said Richardson, especially with alcohol and drugs, he added.
Because cell phone service isn’t always available at the falls, Richardson said families hiking have called when reaching the top of the trail to report a fight. By the time pilots or mounted patrol could check, those reportedly fighting were gone, he said.
Richardson said the sheriff’s department received numerous calls on July 6 after Joseph Meram of El Cajon reportedly slipped off an outcropping of rocks 80 feet above the pool of water at the falls. Richardson said he was told that as Meram fell, he struck a juvenile who was climbing up a rock outcropping 35 feet above the water. That juvenile suffered a hip injury, he said.
Richardson related the story he was told by the pilot conducting the rescue that day. He said the pilot had to land at the bottom of the falls and people almost mobbed the helicopter. It was a dangerous scene because people walked right under the helicopter blades and put themselves in way of the exhaust fumes, Richardson said he was told.
Meram was flown to Fire Station 81 on San Vicente Road where he was pronounced dead. A second helicopter rescued the other juvenile, who was taken to Palomar Medical Center.
If proper enforcement had been in place, Richardson said, who’s to say if this could have happened. But when the summer season started, Richardson said the ASTREA unit foresaw problems at the falls.
The rescues, he said, pull the copters from their primary duty of initial attack on wildfires. On Saturday, July 2, ASTREA was involved in six rescues. Richardson said because the pilots were flying back and forth on numerous rescues, they finally decided to leave a helicopter on standby at Fire Station 81 that day.
“It was completely pulled out of circulation,” he said of the helicopter. “The main part is this problem has grown and tremendously impacted vital resources.”
At this point, those rescued are not charged for services, said Richardson. The sheriff’s department sees the rescues as a mutual aid service it has to provide, he said. Because of the impact of Cedar Creek, he said there is talk of possibly passing an ordinance to bill the jurisdiction, which in that case would be the U.S. Forest Service, or the injured.
“We’ve been meeting on this problem for months,” he said. “We saw this coming. There are a lot of bureaucratic hurdles to come to, to get all the check and balances in place.”
The goal, he added, is not to point fingers—the trail improvement is done. All the agencies have a good relationship, he said, but unfortunately something tragic has to occur to get in the right direction.