Believe me, I would much rather not be writing about out of control wildfires and drugged-out hikers, but … the Springs Fire just passed 10,000 acres and is only 10% contained, and now Orange County officials are considering charging one of the two teens rescued from Trabuco Canyon in April after investigators found 497 milligrams of meth in Nicolas Cendoya’s car at the trailhead. County officials estimated the rescue operation cost $160,000 but said that doesn’t yet include the probable six figure sum for disability and workers’ compensation for the reserve deputy who was badly injured during the rescue.
So here we are again – a new round in the seemingly never-ending debate about whether or not people lost in the wilderness should be financially responsible for their own rescue efforts. Comments on the Modern Hiker Facebook page were pretty clear – almost everyone wanted them to pay … and many felt like their suspicions from the initial hallucination-filled reports were confirmed (myself included). It’s important to note here that County Officials still haven’t made a decision – and it’s not known whether or not Cendoya or his hiking partner Kyndall Jack (who has not been charged) had used the drugs before or on the trail, although their actions certainly suggest it and even some of the people involved in the rescue said they were suspicious of drug use.
I’m still of the opinion that people who need a search and rescue effort should not have to worry about paying for it. At the end of the day, a life is more important than money – and I hate to think of a scenario where someone doesn’t call SAR because they’re afraid of the bill and ends up dying instead … but in cases of negligence I do believe there needs to be some sort of punitive measure put in place to help discourage both overuse of the system and unnecessary risk-taking. Of course, this also raises the question of what, exactly constitutes negligent behavior – is not having the 10 Essentials negligent? Not letting someone know where you’re going? Hiking off-trail? I think most hikers have been guilty of all of those things at one point or another.
If found guilty, heading into the woods on meth would pretty clearly fall into the realm of negligence, though. Then we just have to figure out the problem of how much punishment is enough? Is it the full cost of the rescue? With the added cost of workers’ comp for the injured SAR deputy? Is there even a legal precedent for tacking on those fees for a service that is and has been free for others? Assuming Cendoya is found guilty, he’ll also have to deal with the punishments for drug possession on federal land – which are not going to be light. Several readers have suggested community service in the form of trailwork, which I think is a great idea – one that could be used in combination with lower financial responsibility (mainly because I agree that they should be held responsible, but saddling a teenager with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees is essentially a lifetime sentence to poverty).
It’s a tough call – and I’ll be very interested to see how Orange County handles this. Maybe we will eventually end up with a system where those Darwin Award-nominated lost hikers have to start chipping in for their rescues when they’ve ignored safety regulations or warnings.
If Cendoya is found guilty, what do you think his responsibility should be for the rescue efforts?
Image by Johan Weiland.