For more than 60 years if you were lost in the back country of Ventura County, Carl Hofmeister would have been out looking for you.
But the 76-year-old orchard keeper and construction business owner, a volunteer with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue unit, retired last month.
Hofmeister, who went on his first search with his father as a 13-year-old in 1934, has left the Ojai Area Search and Rescue team, of which he was captain.
From his first search, when he and his father and some friends found a hunter who had been accidentally shot and killed in the back country near Pine Mountain, Hofmeister said he has been ruled by the same ethic.
“If somebody needs help, I’ve always felt that I’ve got to help them,” Hofmeister said recently while sipping coffee at the Summit Cafe in the Upper Ojai with Sheriff’s Sgt. Earl Matthews.
Hofmeister, whose family first settled in the Upper Ojai in 1896, owns a small walnut orchard and tends about 750 acres of trees owned by others in the area.
His work as a volunteer with the Sheriff’s Search and Rescue team began in earnest in the 1940s, and over the years he has become an invaluable resource to the team, said Matthews, the only full-time paid staff member of the team. Matthews helps coordinate the more than 150 volunteers who form eight rescue teams in the county.
The search and rescue teams are divided by specialty--mountain and back country searches, a dive team and a mounted posse.
Hofmeister had headed the Ojai team for 46 years, elected each and every year by his fellow volunteers.
“The only way he was able to step down was to have Sheriff [Larry] Carpenter come up to the last meeting and tell them ‘Hey guys, you got to let him retire,’ otherwise they would have elected him again,” Matthews said.
From when he was a boy, camping and horseback riding into the back country, Hofmeister has had an abiding love for the outdoors, especially Ventura County’s rugged wilderness.
His own favorite spot remains the remote Sespe Hot Springs.
Hofmeister says people “don’t know what they’re missing” if they are not familiar with the area along the Sespe River and in Los Padres National Forest.
It would be nearly impossible to say how many people Hofmeister and his team have rescued, but there are an average of 200 searches or rescues every year, Matthews said.
Of course not all searches end in success.
Just as his first search ended when the team found the missing hunter dead, Hofmeister’s last search in December ended after three days during terrible weather conditions when the man they were looking for was also found dead.
Hofmeister has found young children frozen in the snow or drowned in rivers, and the bones of others.
When the team succeeds, especially after a long search, it can be very rewarding, and the people they find are understandably thankful.
The family of a young man the team rescued after he fell 70 feet from a cliff along Santa Paula Creek two years ago wanted to pay the rescuers. When Hofmeister refused the money, the family offered to buy each team member a pair of boots instead.
The team got the boots.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people are very grateful,” Hofmeister said.
But there is always that other 1%.
After the team found an 8-year-old boy lost in a blizzard several years ago near Pine Mountain, his family sued because the team had not acted quickly enough, Matthews said.
The boy had been on an outing with his school, playing in the snow, when he got lost. The team went out at night in a blizzard to search for the boy, who was wearing street clothes, a light jacket, and carrying a plastic sled.
“We searched seven or eight hours,” Matthews said. “It was just miserable conditions. We couldn’t really see anything because of the snow, so we finally just started uncovering every mound of snow that we saw, and that’s how we found him--huddled under the snow on his sled.”
The team warmed the boy’s chilled body near a fire, but knew they had to get him off the mountain if he were to survive. But the cloud cover was so low that no helicopter could make it in. Realizing the dire situation, Hofmeister stopped the crew for a minute and asked that they all say a prayer.
“And I know it sounds crazy, but the clouds cleared for just a few minutes,” Matthews said.
The area was too rugged to land the chopper, but the team loaded the boy into a gurney and he was airlifted out. The team then had to trudge for several more hours through the snow to get out.
“We had a few people with minor frostbite,” Matthews said.
The boy survived.
Hofmeister and the search crew signed their names to his plastic sled and sent it to the boy in the hospital, but his parents refused to accept it.
His father was angry that it had taken the team so long to find his son and sued. The suit was eventually thrown out.
“Sometimes people don’t know who to blame when they get upset,” Hofmeister said.
Hofmeister’s volunteerism has occasionally put him in harm’s way. Along with working on the search and rescue crew, Hofmeister was a volunteer bulldozer operator who helped during wildfires.
In 1979, his dozer was overtaken by a wall of flames, and he was burned over 50% of his body. He was rushed to the Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks, where doctors gave him little chance to live.
“They told my wife that my arm would have to be amputated and that I probably wouldn’t survive,” Hofmeister said. “And she asked them if I was dying why did they have to take off my arm. So they left it on.”
Hofmeister still wears a compression bandage that covers his torso and still endures severe pain from the burn, but that did not stop his work with the search and rescue unit.
“It gets in your blood,” he said.