Drones, Harmonicas Boost Search for Missing Firefighter

Search for Mike Herdman and dog Duke goes high- and low-tech.

— -- Rescuers are turning to a high-tech tool to help in the search for a missing California firefighter.

Drones armed with infrared cameras – the hand-launched Puma and hovering Qube – are scouring the Los Padres National Forest in the search for Mike Herdman, 34.

Herdman vanished a week ago during a camping trip with his buddy, fellow firefighter Taylor Byars. Byars told authorities he last saw his friend chasing after his dog Duke, which had run into a creek.

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Search crews from half-a-dozen agencies, including a Homeland Security Rapid Response team, have been combing the back country, a wilderness area twice the size of the Grand Canyon.

Eric Haney, who works for AeroVironment Inc., said the drones can cover terrain that’s difficult to reach for the ground crews.

“They’re basically a force multiplier, so instead of having 30 guys out in the field looking, beating the bush looking for this guy, we can launch this aircraft and cover a lot of ground,” Haney said.

For Reserve Chief Mike Leum of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team, minute details could reveal Herdman’s whereabouts.

“Every footprint’s included, every broken branch,” Leum said. “That’s what we’re looking for.”

Search crews spotted Herdman’s dog Wednesday and again Thursday, but Duke got away both times. So searchers are taking along a decidedly low-tech tool – harmonicas, hoping the music will put Duke at ease.

Herdman’s family and friends are convinced his fitness and training have kept him alive. They gathered at the trailhead, hoping he’ll come over the ridge.

“I have no doubt he can survive out there for weeks,” friend Mike MacGregor said. “He’s just an amazing person, very, very resourceful.”