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Intense search for Arcadia firefighter missing in Ventura backcountry

Missing Arcadia firefighter left campsite to chase after dog
One searcher for Arcadia firefighter suffered rattlesnake bite

Eight days after an off-duty Arcadia firefighter and his dog went missing in the rattlesnake-infested backcountry of Ventura County, authorities kept up an intense search using helicopters, drones and scores of highly skilled rescue personnel.

A search party of 86 rescuers, the most since Michael Herdman disappeared, were airlifted into the remote Sespe Wilderness region of Los Padres National Forest on Saturday morning, according to the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department.

The searchers, all trained in mountain rescue, are scouring a 50-square-mile area of canyons, cliffs and boulder-clogged creeks.

“There are no roads,” said Sgt. Eric Buschow of the sheriff’s department.

To get search and rescue teams to the location, helicopters fly 15 miles north of a command post outside Fillmore and then hover over the rugged terrain while rescuers jump to the ground.

Their efforts are being supplemented by two drones. Search coordinators got special permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to deploy them in the search, Buschow said.

Herdman, 36, an experienced outdoorsman who had camped in the area several times before, was last seen June 13th. He and another Arcadia firefighter-paramedic, Tyler Byars, were two days into a four-day backpacking trip when Herdman left a campsite to chase after his dog, Duke.

Byars told authorities that when Herdman didn’t return, he looked for him in the dark and eventually decided to go for help. It took two days for Byars, who was camping for the first time, to hike out of the forest.

Searchers, who come from agencies throughout the state and the federal Department of Homeland Security, spotted Herdman’s dog several times, but have been unable to capture the German shorthair mix.  Authorities are hoping Duke can lead them to Herdman and on Saturday, the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services joined the effort to locate him.

Herdman was barefoot and dressed in a t-shirt and shorts when Byars last saw him. Backcountry hazards include heat exhaustion, falling on the many trecherous inclines and rattlesnakes. Two searchers have suffered heat exhaustion and one, Fillmore Fire Department Asst. Chief Bill Herrera, suffered a severe bite on his hand requiring 52 vials of anti-venom, Buschow said.

“The conditions are survivable, but as the days go on, one has to wonder: Since we have so many resources out there, if he was able to move and walk and signal us, wouldn’t he have done so by now,” Buschow said.

He said the search is considered a rescue rather than a recovery, but the status is reevaluated every day.

Herdman’s parents and wife, Byars and other Arcadia firefighters have been at the command post during the search, said Arcadia Fire Department spokeswoman Beth Stogner. She said those close to Herdman, who lives near Dana Point and has a young daughter, see his outdoor experience and his athleticism as a reason to remain optimistic.

“I think between his training and his love for the outdoors, his physical condition, they all lend themselves to a greater likelihood of survival,” she said. “We ask that people continue to hope and pray and think positive.

harriet.ryan@latimes.com

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