The San Bernardino County (CA) Fire Department covers a fire district that encompasses 19,229 square miles, including the mountains in the San Bernardino National Forest, the most recreated national forest in the United States, where the communities of Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear are located. The department also covers the eastern side of the San Gabriel Mountains, and its Wrightwood station does mutual aid with the Los Angeles County (CA) Fire Department.
When it comes time to dispatch rescue units into the mountains, especially in winter and early spring, San Bernardino relies on a series of “snow cat” stations between the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountain stations. “These are single-engine stations, each with a minimum of a Type 1 four-wheel-drive engine that carries an ALS bag, and three firefighters, says Josh Wilkins, captain of San Bernardino County’s Mountain Division 3. “Most of the stations have a Type 3 or Type 6 wildland engine as well, plus a snow cat, while several stations have fire boats because we service Big Bear Lake,” he says.
Wilkins says that San Bernardino County’s snow cat fleet comprises three Prinoth snow groomers, four LMC 1500 tracked vehicles, and a Phycol IMP enclosed snow cat. “Our new Prinoth snow cats can carry 11 people: five enclosed up front and six in the rear passenger compartment,” he points out. The LMC 1500 units also are enclosed and carry six passengers, and the 1968 Phycol IMP enclosed snow cat carries seven passengers.”
Because the San Bernardino County’s tracked snow units are often out for eight hours at a time, all crew members must be ALS-certified, and two must be qualified operators. Wilkins says the snow units are required to carry enough survival supplies for 72 hours for the crew and the vehicles’ passengers. “That means food, water, shelter, fire, warmth, ALS bag, avalanche equipment like probes and transceivers, fuel, and repair parts for the snow cats,” he says. “If we know it’s a medical call, we’ll grab an EKG monitor off of an engine to take with us. We are looking to get a smaller, portable, military-style EKG monitor for our snow cats.”
Wilkins notes that the snow cats “are completely self-sufficient, and can be used as shelter if the need arises. We also carry battery powered chain saws on the units because we come across a lot of down trees in the back country, and the battery-powered chain saws mean we don’t have to store fuel in the passenger cabin.” The snow cats also carry 200 feet of 2½-inch hose line and a gated wye that could be attached to a hydrant to access mountain homes, he adds.
With the department having such a large response area, it has trailers that can haul five snow cats to be towed by Ford F-550 wildland vehicles to wherever they might be needed as a group. “We also bring them together for three days of hands-on training annually in the mountains,” Wilkins says. “We have winches and full tow equipment, mainly for self rescue, but the other day we pulled out a bunch of sheriff’s vehicles stuck in snow. One time we were out for 26 hours, searching as a last resort for someone stuck in a winter storm, and a few weeks ago we had 15 people stuck in a snowstorm that dumped four feet of snow in the area. In a case like that, we leave one unit at the station for logistical support and take everything else to make the rescue.”
ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based journalist, the author of three novels and five nonfiction books, and a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.