It’s afternoon on the Fourth of July. Is California Highway Patrol officer Reese McAllister out celebrating? No. Holidays, especially during the summer when Plumas County’s population swells, are the busiest for law enforcement.
That’s when keeping motorists safe from each other, themselves, road debris and animals becomes an even more important priority.
Just the day before, the CHP had patrolled local highways as participants from the High Sierra Music Fest bid the area adieu.
The Fourth found McAllister running traffic detail at the beginning of Oakland Camp Road. A fire had ignited right next to the narrow lane at a time when the often-tranquil area was at its busiest — Oakland Camp was packed with those enjoying a rustic bit of nature, and the swimming hole was filled with partiers and those enjoying a cooling way to relax.
The CHP responded to put up a roadblock to all but emergency vehicles — and a press person. Forest Service firefighters and engineers were assisted by area fire departments, and the officers from the Plumas County Sheriff’s Office were available to assist with information at the camp and anyway they could at the fire staging location.
But let’s back up to the beginning of the summer when Plumas highways take on a different nature.
“My how things have changed,” was among my first thoughts as I settled into a four-year-old California Highway Patrol cruiser.
Gone was the old Crown Victoria, but well established is the Ford Explorer I was to become somewhat familiar with over the next nine hours.
Gone was the roomy feeling of the old Crown Vics, as patrol officers fondly call the old cruisers. Replacing it is a crowded rolling office space complete with computer system, dash camera and other equipment.
It was Memorial Day, generally noted as one of the busiest days of the year. It’s when traffic picks up and motorists are either excited to begin a holiday week ahead or in a hurry to get home after the first big three-day weekend of the summer.
It’s been years since I’ve done a ride along with the CHP — or any law enforcement branch for that matter. It’s Reese McAllister’s goal to try to keep those using the highways as safe as possible.
Ride along begins
McAllister, a 15-year veteran of the CHP, is just beginning his 12-hour shift. Climbing into his patrol car, he goes through a series of routine checks to make sure all systems linked to the computer are working correctly. On one of my last rides, the CHP officers still calibrated the unit’s radar with what looked like a tuning fork. In the corner of the dashboard facing the windshield is a black drum-shaped device that’s the front radar system and then there’s one in the rear.
There are other additions. For instance, I don’t remember the black steel screen dividing the passenger/driver part of the compartment and the backseat, existing in older units. There’s also the addition of an extra rifle. Following 9/11 and homegrown incidents right here in California, McAllister said it was clear the CHP was outgunned in many instances. Faced with a tight budget and a big need, McAllister said the military provided M16s to law enforcement agencies. When the CHP could afford to do so, those weapons were replaced. Now two rifles take the place of that single weapon.
The first stop McAllister makes is at the Quincy Caltrans yard to fill up his unit with gasoline. This was once done right on the CHP premises, but the state removed those pumps, he said.
The stop does take a little extra time. The front gates to the Caltrans yard are locked on a holiday, so McAllister adds opening and closing the gates to his preparation time before he heads out on his first call.
That first call that comes in is a stolen auto taken sometime during the last day or so from Leonard Avenue in Quincy.
When McAllister finds the right address, he starts talking with the man who called in the stolen vehicle. Soon, he’s joined by fellow CHP officer Kip Himas and the two find out the particulars about when the owner last saw his light blue 1991 blue, two-door Honda Civic.
Stolen vehicles are a rarity in this area, McAllister explained. He recalls only two that were actually stolen during the 10 years he has been in Quincy. Usually, the individual’s forgotten where he’s put it or someone borrowed it and he forgot or the individual thought it would be okay not to tell the owner.
As McAllister gathers information, he tells the Honda owner that once the auto is listed as stolen, regardless of who’s driving it, it will be stopped. It doesn’t matter if the driver is the man’s mother and he’s forgotten she borrowed it, or the thief.
This stop takes McAllister 22 minutes by the time he’s interviewed the man, written down the information and then logged the stop into the computer. “This is like a time card of everything I do,” he said referring to the spreadsheet that appears on the computer screen. “This would be kind of cool if we can find this vehicle today,” he added.
He also radios the information into the CHP dispatch in Susanville.
McAllister next checks out a few likely places around Quincy where someone might leave a car. “You don’t know how many we find right here in this shopping center,” he said about misplaced vehicles ending up in the Plumas Pines Shopping Center.
With no light blue Hondas in sight, McAllister decides to drive east on Highway 70. His first stop along the way is next to a black pickup along the side of the road. McAllister said that his job isn’t all about stopping speeding cars and going to car crashes, he’s out there making sure people are safe.
There’s no need to get out at this stop. As he slows the patrol unit next to the pickup and rolls down the window, the smiling driver of the other vehicle indicates everything is just fine.
At a similar stop later on in the day, McAllister doubles-back to a vehicle stopped in a turnoff. With experience behind him and five children of his own, he guesses they’ve stopped to feed a baby. As we pull up and he asks the young parent if everything is okay, he’s exactly right — the baby needs something.
As the father of four boys and a daughter, McAllister isn’t sure if he would encourage any of them to go into law enforcement. On the other hand, he will support them in whatever they decide to do.
McAllister’s career goal wasn’t toward the CHP. His father was a contractor and some of those skills came McAllister’s way. He did build his home here in Quincy, but before that, he didn’t want to go into his father’s business.
Family friends were CHP officers, he recalled and they were good people. Then he and a friend got to talking about submitting applications and seeing if they would get accepted. They both did. McAllister went to the academy; his friend chose a different path.
As McAllister talks about the job, he said that every officer is a little different. “I tend to key in to moving violations, primarily collision reduction,” he said. Keeping the roads safe for everyone is a primary concern.
Almost to prove his point, McAllister spots an oncoming vehicle that seems to be traveling way too fast. Engaging his radar it shows an oncoming motorcycle traveling at 65 miles per hour in a 55 mph zone. He turns the cruiser around and into the roadway and hits the gas in an effort to catch up with the couple on the bike. Before long the driver is aware of the flashing lights and finds a safe place to pull over. McAllister follows, gathers his leather ticket book — a present from his wife when he graduated from the academy — and approaches the bike on the right side.
This will be a warning, he said.
The dashboard camera records the activity as McAllister approaches the young couple, a man and a woman, each wearing a large helmet. The stop is also verbally recorded, but nothing comes through on the interior speaker.
“We don’t track it,” he said about issuing written warnings. There’s a big message on the back of warning tickets that is part of a statewide campaign. The message is all about safety.
With that stop completed, McAllister once again adds the data to his computer spreadsheet and soon we’re back on the highway. This next stop involves a man driving an Infinity. Radar from the rear unit had him traveling at 77 mph.
Lights on, McAllister again hits the gas and the driver pulls over into another turnout. He’s from San Rafael and he gets a ticket.
“That guy was not happy,” he said, but dealing with unpleasant people is part of the job he trained for.
After every traffic stop where a ticket is issued, McAllister said they make notes concerning the incident. This is necessary in case someone takes it to court.
As he finishes his chores, it comes across the radio that two people didn’t stop at the stop sign and there is someone following them on Quincy Junction Road. At first, I think we’ll be responding, but then another unit is closer. McAllister said that he can guess who is responsible for following the people. It’s the right area and it seems to be customary for one particular individual.
Finding another favorite spot, McAllister again pulls off the road and into a turnout. “I only transmit on a car that I think is speeding,” he said. He doesn’t just sit in the car and allow the radar to run.
One of the next stops is a black truck with Nevada plates. It takes the CHP unit a while to catch up to the truck and before the driver finally pulls over.
The driver’s story is that his wife is in the hospital in Quincy. She was traveling and got dizzy; someone got her to the hospital and he was in a big hurry to get to her. McAllister said that when the man opened the glove box to get his insurance and registration information out, a warning ticket fell out. This obviously isn’t his first rodeo.
What he gets is a lecture about driving too fast and passing over the double yellow lines. He’s given a warning ticket and told to slow down. “If you make a mistake and don’t make it there …” McAllister said, leaving the rest of the statement to the imagination.
Once during the High Sierra Music Festival and all the people it draws to the area, McAllister said that one individual was going 103 mph near Bonta Ridge. “That’s the stuff we see out on (Highway) 395, not around here,” he said.
Explaining about the radar system, McAllister said there’s a Doppler tone. “The higher the pitch the higher the speed,” he said.
When in use on a radar-designated road or highway, radar bounces microwave radiation off a moving object, such as an oncoming car. It transmits while simultaneously receiving reflections from moving objects.
Someone can generally tell visually if a car is speeding, but McAllister said that he and other officers like to have their citations backed up by radar if it goes to court.
Just part of the job
Returning to Quincy, McAllister starts driving up Cemetery Hill and the cruiser drives over what I took to be a red paper cup in the roadway. “What was that?” he questions as he looks back to see the object lying in the roadway. “That was a wallet,” he answers his own question and finds a place to turn around. Sure enough, it’s a red wallet he picks up. He also retrieves some cards that flew to the side of the road.
Reading the woman’s name he asks if it’s someone I might know. I do. I don’t know where she lives, but he reaches for his handy book of local maps and matches the address on the driver license to the street on the map.
It takes two tries to return the wallet, but the woman seems quite pleased. It’s probably saved her a lot of phone calls and trouble to replace what’s inside.
Over the side
At some point, a call comes through that a woman is “over the side” on Big Creek Road. That’s the lower road to and from Bucks Lake. It generally means that a vehicle is involved.
My ride-along has already called for some high speeds in pursuit of speeding vehicles, but now speed is essential in reaching a possible victim as quickly as possible.
The twists and turns of the road through Meadow Valley are well known to me, but never in my life have I experienced each curve so quickly connected to the last.
“Are you going to be sick?” McAllister suddenly asks, briefly glancing my way and then eyes returning to the highway.
Surprised, I recall answering something about having the time of my life. Going fast — well, as fast as road conditions allow — with a trained, experienced driver behind the wheel is a bonus.
Soon the entry to Big Springs Road is at hand. Other emergency crews — Meadow Valley Fire Department, a sheriff’s deputy and possibly others — are on scene. We quickly learn that it is indeed a “woman over the side.”
It turns out that an elderly couple from Texas was out hiking to see the mining claim they’d purchased. Just how the woman made it down the steep embankment toward the small stream was a wonder, we decided. Why she couldn’t make it back out was clear.
Realizing his wife was dehydrated and couldn’t make the steep climb back up to the roadway, the man left her and her two little dogs. He, in turn, hiked out, then drove back to Meadow Valley to get help.
As we left to cover more territory, emergency workers with climbing gear and ropes were making their way toward the stranded woman — dogs and all.
The day didn’t end there, soon we were driving toward Sierra Valley in response to a drunk driver call. We didn’t find him, but it was a good conclusion to an eventful, but thankfully, not a tragic day.