To join the Southland's newest crime watch group, you have to jump off a mountain, soar through the air and operate a camera thousands of feet above the ground.
That's no problem for "sky bums" from the Sylmar Hang Gliding Assn., who have launched their anti-crime effort in the skies above Angeles National Forest.
The group of 200 aerial snitches say they frequently see illegal dumping and maverick skeet shooters and a lot of parked cars with no apparent purpose in the San Gabriel Mountains above Sylmar.
"I hate to see couches and stoves dumped up here because it's such a beautiful area," Robert Laukka, 28, of Thousand Oaks said Friday as he prepared to leap off wind-swept Kagel Mountain, his sleuthing camera strapped to the frame of his glider.
Brush fires in the forest are common, and they create an inconvenience for hang gliders because the National Park Service usually shuts down launch pads near the fires.
"Watching out for arsonists will save us sky bums a lot of grief," said Bob Lafay, 56, of Tujunga, who made his 1,217th hang-gliding flight from Kagel Mountain on Friday.
The hang gliders decided to capitalize on their bird's-eye view in the hopes that their presence will deter criminals from such activities as dumping stolen cars over the sides of cliffs and shooting guns illegally in the forest, said Rome Dodson, spokesman for the Sylmar association. Last week, three men in a white pickup truck were observed shooting at an abandoned car by the side of the 2 1/2-mile dirt road leading to the launch site.
"If our watch stops one person from doing something wrong, it will be worth it," Dodson said.
Firefighters and law enforcement officers said the idea of such a group is, well, lofty. With lightweight, disposable cameras, the snoops will swoop as close as 10 feet--when wind conditions allow--to photograph cars in isolated spots.
The hang gliders will keep records of the vehicles that they see, and, in the event of fires, will report the information to rangers or the police on hand-held radios or telephones.
"I personally think it is a very good idea," said Jim Sanchez, chief of the Los Angeles County Fire Department's air operations. "Whatever these folks can do, we appreciate it."
Ninety-three fires have burned this summer in the 690,000-acre Angeles National Forest, which stretches from the Sylmar area to San Bernardino, said Jim Stump, deputy fire management officer for the forest. Twenty were started by arsonists, none of whom were apprehended, he said.
"It's been a bad year in terms of number of fires started, but we've been lucky only 1,735 acres have burned," Stump said. "Every little bit the hang gliders can do helps."
However, Deputy Chief Paul Blackburn, head of the Los Angeles County Fire Department's Prevention and Conservation Bureau, warned that like any crime watch group, the hang gliders need guidance from law enforcement agencies.
"They need direction," Blackburn said. "Some of those arsonists may be dangerous, so they shouldn't try to catch anyone themselves."
Members of the Sylmar club say there is no chance of that. One of the reasons they started the watch group, they say, is to change the image of hang gliders as danger-loving and foolhardy.
"It's safer than most sports," said Dodson, as he prepared to race down a ramp and throw himself off the side of the mountain.