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San Bernardino County USAR protects residents from abandoned mines

July 28, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
The gold and silver booms that brought many people to California left behind numerous abandoned mines. And those mines pose many dangers for anyone trying to explore them.

Calico Ghost Town is a hot spot for tourists in the high desert. But while they were checking out the historic silver mine, members of a San Bernardino County Urban Search and Rescue team were checking out a real mine.

Don't let the small holes deceive you. Once inside, the tunnels are seemingly endless.

But this crew isn't sightseeing, they're training. Because the hazards in an abandoned mine can be unlike anything USAR comes across.

"Here with the mines, especially the abandoned mines where we don't have good underground plans, we don't know what we're getting into until we approach a situation, it's an eye opener," said Eric Sherwin from S.B. County USAR.

For example, walking through a tunnel is OK with a flashlight. But it could be a scary situation should that light go out and it becomes pitch black.

There are also manmade hazards, such as meth labs that have been dumped. And there are mine shafts, some that run 750 feet deep.

"You're setting yourself up to be another victim," said Sherwin.

One of the things people don't think about in a mine is how dangerous the air can be. That's why USAR crews brought in a four-gas monitor, just to make sure all the air they're breathing is in fact safe.

"For the average, ordinary, weekday adventurer, they are unprepared," said Donnie Viloria from USAR. "They don't have a ready pack, they don't have survival supplies."

Viloria says his team gets about four calls a year for mine rescues in San Bernardino County.

"Just this past January we responded up to Wrightwood for a man who'd fallen down an abandoned well head," said Viloria. "It was down 150 feet that we had to rescue in the middle of the night."

They hope tourists stay away from the more than 4,500 mines in the county, and stick to places like Calico Ghost Town.

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