Routine animal rescue hampered by locked gate

by Steven Felschundneff |

Last Thursday what should have been a routine rescue of an injured dog in the Claremont Hills Wilderness Park turned into a frustrating ordeal for a handful of Claremont’s first responders.


That afternoon, Claremont police dispatched the city’s park rangers to help retrieve the dog, which was with its owners on Potato Mountain. The quickest route to Potato is via the fire road access off Mt. Baldy Road. However, when rangers arrived at the locked gate guarding the Evey Canyon fire road they found none of their keys worked.


Police advised the rangers to drive back down the hill to Los Angeles County Fire Station 62 on Mills Avenue and retrieve the keys stored there. But that effort was futile as well.


“The fire station guys brought up a bunch of keys, but none worked to open the gate. The Forest Service was [contacted] and one of their people came down with another set of keys but again, none worked,” ranger Tom Shelley told the COURIER.


Meanwhile, the couple with the injured dog was able to carry the animal off the mountain to just past the Evey Canyon saddle, which is just over a mile from the trailhead. Their progress was halted when the dog panicked and bit one owner on her face.


With no other means to open the fire gate, a ranger and two L.A. County firefighters hiked over a mile carrying a litter to where the dog was located. The dog had to be muzzled and tied to the litter to keep everyone safe, but the canine was finally carried down to Mt. Baldy Road where the owners quickly loaded it into their car and headed to an emergency clinic. 


“The situation should have been routine, only taking a half hour with the help of a few park rangers. But instead it took not only the rangers, but an additional two firemen and a forest service personnel over two hours,” Mr. Shelley said.


Although the story had a happy ending for the dog, the mystery still remains why the first responders were unable to access the Evey Canyon fire road.


Reached by phone on Wednesday, Claremont Police Lt. Karlan Bennett said the gate, and the lock, belongs to the U.S. Forest Service. He said a few years ago the Forest Service did in fact switch the locks without notice, but the Claremont Police Department was provided with a key sometime afterward and as far as he knew the key still worked.


He said police received a 9-1-1 call about the injured dog and dispatched rangers but the police did not respond. He’s not sure why the rangers had problems with the gate but he planned to send someone up to Evey Canyon to double check that the CPD keys still work in the lock.


Parks and Sports Program Coordinator Fred Cervantes, who supervises the city’s rangers, successfully opened the gate with his key on Wednesday. Similar to Lt. Bennett, he was unsure why the rangers and the fire department had trouble last week but indicated he would make sure the fire crews got the correct key.


“We are definitely going to remedy that. I am headed over to Station 62 right now,” he said.


Mr. Cervantes said the rangers check the locks on an annual basis to make sure their keys still work, but perhaps they should use this incident as an opportunity to revaluate and check the locks more often.


“We are always looking for ways to improve our response to emergency situations in the park,” he said “Luckily this time it was not a hiker who needed immediate emergency care.”


The unfortunate incident also serves as a opportunity to remind the public that the Claremont Hills Wilderness Park is in fact a wild area so visitors need to have adequate water and food as well as a plan in case something goes wrong. In the case of one’s canine friends, owners need to make sure that their dog has enough water and must be aware of the animal’s limitations, particularly if the dog is older.


The city is working with the Friends of the Claremont Hills Wilderness Park to upgrade signage so people are more aware of their precise location within the park and can determine the direction of the closest exit. They also plan to erect an informational kiosk at the main gate at Mills Avenue and Mt. Baldy Road.


At 8.2 miles round trip from the CHWP main gate Potato Mountain is a popular hike. The terrain toward the top of the mountain is pretty rough but the reward is worth the effort with views of the entire valley and even the Pacific Ocean on a clear day.


The fire road at Evey Canyon is not an official entrance to the park and there are signs at the gate indicating that the trail is closed to the public. The city of Claremont closed the pullouts directly adjacent to Evey Canyon in the early days of the pandemic because of crowding and improperly parked vehicles.


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