Rescued hiker was in off-limits burn zone of Angeles National Forest, officials say

Hayley Smith
·4 min read
Search teams were deployed in the Mt. Waterman area of the San Gabriel Mountains to find hiker Rene Compean
Search teams were deployed in the Mt. Waterman area of the San Gabriel Mountains to find hiker Rene Compean, who was reported missing April 12. (Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department)

A lost hiker whose unusual rescue made headlines had entered an off-limits area of the Angeles National Forest before going missing last week, officials said.

Rene Compean, 45, was airlifted from a remote region of the forest Tuesday after a GPS sleuth used a grainy photo posted by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to determine his approximate location through satellite imaging and geolocation tools.

The area where he was found — between Triplet Rocks and Twin Peaks — is one of the least accessible locations in the San Gabriel Mountains, the U.S. Forest Service said. It is also deep inside the area burned by the Bobcat fire, which whipped through the wilderness in September.

"We want to understand what happened so we can identify what needs to be done to keep future hikers from wandering so far into a closed fire recovery area," Angeles National Forest spokesman John Clearwater said.

Capt. Russ Tuttle, chief of law enforcement for the Angeles National Forest, said in a statement that the federal government closed the area after the fire for the safety of the public and for forest recovery. The region near Triplet Rocks has no maintained routes, and the fire burned away nearly all forest signage and location markers.

Compean was bruised and marked with soot when he was found, officials said, and video of the rescue shows the terrain was scorched by flames.

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According to Tuttle, entering a fire closure zone is a misdemeanor crime that can result in up to six months in jail and up to a $10,000 fine. The Forest Service received numerous inquiries about consequences for the hiker, but Tuttle said it's a "tough call."

"We hesitate to use criminal action, as we don't want to discourage people from calling for help when needed," he said. "We encourage people to call for help wherever they are in the forest. However, people need to know these areas are closed for their safety."

The majority of the area east of Angeles Crest Highway and west of Highway 39, where Compean was, is currently off-limits to the public. His car was found near the Buckhorn Campground, which is also closed.

The hiker's original plans and intentions are not yet known, Clearwater said, noting that the distance from the campground to Triplet Rocks is about three miles "as the crow flies" — but traversing it on foot would entail "a very long, difficult and exhausting cross-country path."

"We understand how easy it is to get disoriented," he said. "However, the moment the hiker encountered large areas of burned forest, which were clearly visible from search-and-rescue video, he should have realized he was entering a closed burn area and began backtracking from the direction he came."

The Bobcat fire was one of the largest wildfires in L.A. County history. It burned through more than 180 square miles of the forest, destroyed 171 structures — including 87 residences — and came within feet of the Mt. Wilson Observatory.

The fire also devastated the wilderness area, which will require decades to recover, Clearwater said.

"The burn scars are entering their first spring growth following last fall's wildfire," he said. "Plant life, which is so important to providing ground cover and preventing future erosion, needs the opportunity to grow unmolested. ... As with any scar, the land needs time to recover."

The Angeles National Forest plans to consider all legal options as it investigates, officials said.

"We are so grateful for a happy ending to this search and appreciative of all the dedicated and skilled search-and-rescue teams involved, as well as, our online community." Tuttle said. "However, the public needs to know these areas are off-limits for their protection and that of the forest."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.