Foothill Mounted Patrol members check a trail in the Hansen Dam Recreation… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)
Atop his chocolate mare JJ, Rene Herrera follows a dirt path from Gabrielino Equestrian Park on the eastern end of Hansen Dam Recreation Area to a nearby creek shaded by cottonwoods.
Families with coolers and bags of food have beaten Herrera and two other horse riders there, seeking refuge in the wooded waterside from temperatures in the 90s. While a dozen children splash around in a swimming hole, the adults kick back in hammocks and camp chairs, eating grilled chicken and shooting the breeze.
Herrera and the other riders are part of the Foothill Mounted Patrol, a volunteer community watch that each weekend traverses a network of horse trails looking for graffiti, trash and illegal campfires in the brush.
On this recent Sunday, they've spied a barbecue — a no-no everywhere at Hansen Dam except in grassy areas. When Herrera informs a party of this, a woman assures him that they've already been told and that they are no longer using the 4-foot-high gas grill.
"I trust you,'' Herrera says. "And hey, if you see anyone else with a barbecue, will you let them know?" Everyone smiles and nods.
It's not always such a friendly exchange.
Patrol members are sometimes met with insults, Herrera said. If someone refuses to extinguish their grill pit, the volunteers are trained to back away and call the city Office of Public Services for backup. If things get really rowdy, they call the Los Angeles Police Department.
But more often than not, no one responds, Herrera said. After two years of serving as the volunteer eyes and ears of Hansen Dam, Foothill Mounted Patrol members say they are frustrated by a lack of official action.
"It makes no sense to be out there and see something and no one is there to back you up or respond to your call,'' said Herrera, a 25-year Los Angeles firefighter who started the group.
An LAPD spokesman said the department is too busy dealing with violent crime to respond to such low-level offenses. Dozens of officer positions have gone unfilled as the city deals with chronic budget deficits, said Lt. Andy Nieman.
"Many times citizens call to report an illegal act or a loud party,'' he said. "But if it doesn't rise to the level of an urgent response, a report will be taken and the response prioritized."
Help might be on the way, though.
Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon, whose district includes the Hansen Dam area, said he is working with the LAPD to provide a special weekend "party patrol" for the popular recreation area throughout the summer months.
The goal would be to bring extra police patrols every weekend and during holiday periods, when problems with illicit fires, drinking and loud parties tend to peak, Alarcon said. The councilman said he has asked the Police Department to provide details on how such a patrol might work and how much it would cost.
"The main fear I have is fire,'' he said. "Many people are making campfires and using barbecues in those wooded areas."
Firefighters this year already have put out four small blazes, said Herrera, who is stationed at a firehouse on the southern rim of the 1,463-acre recreation area. Arson, campfires and tossed cigarettes are suspected in all of them, he said.
For decades Hansen Dam has been the east San Fernando Valley's recreational jewel, drawing thousands each year to fish, boat, swim and ride horses. When the lake fell into disrepair and unruly weekend crowds swamped its parks in the early 1990s, residents, park officials and activists banded together to turn things around.
Nobody wants to see a return to the early 1990s, when loud parties of up to 1,000 people jammed Hansen Dam's Orcas Park, blocking roadways and, in one instance, sparking a rock-and-bottle-tossing melee when police attempted to stop a man from consuming alcohol.
The city closed the 25-acre park in 1992, citing safety concerns. When it reopened seven years later, it was re-christened Gabrielino Equestrian Park, with a horse-riding arena and children's play equipment, in an effort to draw families and horse riders.
Lately, though, some of the old problems have resurfaced, according to Terry Kaiser, chairman of the Hansen Dam Park Advisory Board. In late June, he said, there were two major gatherings along the eastern Big Tujunga Wash — people drinking beer and hard liquor, playing loud music and lighting up barbecues. Then came a fire that scorched an acre.
"On Memorial Day, I made a trip through the area on horseback and counted 275 people along the waterways,'' he said. "Some of them were damming up the creek to create swimming pools. This is city property, and we should have a way to protect it."
Herrera organized the Foothill Mounted Patrol two years ago in response to increasing lawlessness that equestrians observed along horse trails in the upper Hansen Dam and adjacent Big Tujunga Wash areas. Vagrants with camps were becoming aggressive with horse riders, setting up booby traps to scare the animals, he said.