Calif. firefighters train for avalanche rescues

The firefighters took to the slopes to practice with gear that many of them had never used before


By Darrell R. Santschi
The Press Enterprise

SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY, Calif. — Two years ago this month, Wrightwood firefighter Earl Meredith joined in the grim search for one of three skiers who ventured off the ski runs of the Mountain High resort and were buried in avalanches.

"You have a crowd around you. You have people yelling at you to help their friends or family," recalled the 28-year-old Rancho Cucamonga resident. "You have to remain calm and recall your training."

Meredith was back at the ski resort in the San Gabriel Mountains on Thursday with 39 other San Bernardino County firefighters and rescuers, along with 15 of their counterparts from Los Angeles County, to train for the day when they may have to do it again.

"It happens more frequently than you might think," said San Bernardino County Fire Department Capt. Steve Roeber, who organized the avalanche and ice rescue training.

Two or three times a year, avalanches befall the ski resort country and the nearby town of Wrightwood. On most occasions, firefighters help dig out homes inundated with snow.

"It happens when we get a snowstorm followed by warm temperatures," Roeber said. "There is a glaze that forms on top of the snow. If the next storm is a cold one, it falls on top of that glaze and becomes very unstable. It starts to slide."

All three of the skiers buried on Jan. 25, 2008, were killed. However, loss of life is rare.

"The fact that we had three in a day two years ago was amazing," said Trevor Samorajski, a Ski Patrol leader at the resort who helped teach Thursday's class. "Before that, the last reported avalanche fatality was 20 years earlier."

While the ski runs are considered safe, he said, "People who aren't looking at the signs travel into an area where they are not properly equipped to deal with the consequences."

Occasionally, skiers ride the lifts to the top of the mountain, Roeber said, "and then they look out of bounds and see all that virgin snow and they think they can truck out into it and they are going to be fine. This is not the case, especially up in these canyons."

Thursday's training included classroom instruction on necessary equipment and recognition of such dangerous conditions as steep slopes, convex bulges of soft snow and narrow pathways where sliding snow funnels down the hillsides.

The firefighters then took to the slopes to practice with gear that many of them had never used before.

Some practiced prodding in the snow with long metal poles used to probe for avalanche victims.

Others used electronic tracking devices, including a newly developed Swiss gadget called the Recco R9 Detector.

Shaped like a clothes iron with a looping antenna, the Recco transmits a signal that bounces off 2-inch-long reflectors sewn into the fabric of commercially available ski wear, allowing rescuers to find a buried victim from as far away as 200 feet.

It can also detect components of common electronic devices, including cell phones and cameras.

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