All-terrain Buggy to Join Rescue Teams

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The helicopter that landed at the top of Car Wreck Trail in the Aliso-Wood Canyons Wilderness Park to rescue an injured biker last weekend is not an uncommon occurrence, said Laguna Beach Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse. “We get calls to go back into the wilderness area a couple of times a week,” he said.

Teenagers lit a campfire recently in the hills near Canyon Acres on Laguna Canyon Road, creating a risky situation and a difficult task for police officers. “It took us hours to find the campfire and then find the kids,” said Laguna Beach Police Capt. Darin Lenyi. “We could see where it was from Laguna Canyon Road, but once you get up there you’re walking around on narrow trails. Luckily, the fire didn’t spread.”

From heart attacks to sexual assaults, illegal campfires to injured mountain bikers and dehydrated hikers, it’s time the city had an all-terrain vehicle to respond to emergency calls and get up in the hills quickly, said Lenyi. His request for a dune-buggy-like utility terrain vehicle was approved by the City Council last week.

The all-wheel-drive, gas-powered UTV will cost $17,900, Lenyi said, and will be used by firefighters, police and marine safety officers. The vehicle will be purchased with asset forfeiture funds, which come from money and property confiscated by police during a crime investigation.

The buggy is lightweight and agile and can easily travel on single-track trails, which are narrow, single-file paths used by hikers and bikers. It will be equipped with a mesh stretcher, fire extinguisher, first-aid kit, wench and roll-cage, said Lenyi. For red-flag events or a fire in progress, the UTV can carry firefighters and equipment to the source quicker than a fire truck, he said.

“If I had a broken leg in the middle of the wilderness park, I’d sure like one of those vehicles to come and get me,” said Gene Felder, vice president of Laguna Canyon Conservancy. Felder recalled when neighbors complained about people smoking off the trails near the Top of the World neighborhood. The police motorcycle toppled over on a steep trail and the officer got injured.

“Anything that makes our partnership with the city more collaborative is a plus in my opinion,” said Laguna Canyon Foundation president Hallie Jones. “It sounds like a great tool.”

The UTV will be added to the city’s fleet of small public-service vehicles, which includes two electric “mules” or golf cart-type cars police use to patrol downtown and during special events, Lenyi said.

Up until now, the Orange County Fire Authority, which has jurisdiction over much of the 11,500 combined acres of the Laguna Coast and the Aliso-Wood Canyons wilderness parks, is the first called for a rescue and usually sends a helicopter, said OCFA Fire Captain Richard Ventura. The OCFA also owns two UTVs.

Ventura calls it the “surge” when people, largely inexperienced, become weekend wilderness adventure-seekers. “As development gets bigger and bigger around Orange County,” said Ventura, “more and more people are looking for adventurous things to do like mountain biking and long-term hiking.”

And they’re not prepared, he said. “They don’t bring water, they get dehydrated. Physically, they’re not in condition and when they hike in six miles they forget they have to hike out six miles.” Ventura said.

“Laguna just happens to be one of those areas,” he said, “where people come to the beach and then go on a day hike. That makes the problem worse because there’s more people hiking back there than usual.”

With Laguna adding its own all-terrain vehicle to the mix, the more the better, said Ventura. “Having the ability to reach their own quicker is great,” he said.

“And, quite frankly, it’s just fun,” said Lenyi.

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