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Officials struggle to prevent drownings

Santa Barbara News-Press 3 September 2003

MELINDA BURNS
NEWS-PRESS SENIOR WRITER

As hundreds of picnickers flock to Paradise Canyon to escape the heat, U.S. Forest Service officials say they are dumbfounded - and struggling to come up with new safety measures - in the wake of this summer's tragedies: Three river drownings in less than a month, and a diving injury in June.

The latest victim was Santa Barbaran Alejandro Saavedra-Barranco, 24, who died on Labor Day. Like 9-year-old Leticia Rojas, who died on Aug. 10, he did not know how to swim.

"We have a lot of questions in our mind as to what is the most effective way to educate the public," said Ranger Linda Riddle, whose district in Los Padres National Forest includes the popular eight-mile stretch along the Santa Ynez River, from Paradise to Red Rock campgrounds.

"It's really quite the dilemma. It's a big area -that's the biggest challenge we have. There are a lot of places where people can get into the water."

Both Leticia and Mr. Saavedra-Barranco died near the Live Oak picnic area. A 28-year-old Montebello resident drowned on Aug. 17 in a pool at Red Rock, where the river twists and turns around steep rock formations. In the dry season, only pools remain. On June 18, Sam Saces, 16, was injured when he performed a cannonball-style jump from a height of 70 feet above one of the largest pools at Red Rock

Tuesday, the day after Mr. Saavedra-Barranco drowned in view of the picnic area, the Forest Service began distributing fliers to visitors along Paradise Road, warning them to never swim alone, leave their children unsupervised or enter the water after drinking. The fliers also warn of the invisible hazards-underwater rocks and boulders, uneven footing and deep pools that can waylay unsuspecting bathers.

The fliers will be translated into Spanish and posted at all the campgrounds, but Los Padres officials say they don't know whether it will make a difference.

A Forest Service sign at Red Rock, at the end of Paradise Road, warns visitors not to jump off rocks into the pools below. But almost every year, someone gets hurt doing just that Lifeguards are out of the question, officials said - the river is not really a designated swimming area in the first place.

"It's a growing problem," said Kathy Good, a Los Padres spokeswoman. "People are naturally drawn to the water. They want to cool off. But a lot of folks don't know how to swim and have no business being in the water. It's a wild area and people forget that"

A Santa Barbara County Sheriffs deputy is on patrol all weekend, but there are often up to 1,000 people in the canyon, and deputies can't keep track of whether people in the river know how to swim. And because of understaffing, Ms. Riddle said, a Los Padres employee patrols only the lower section of Paradise Road, leaving the upper section, where two of the recent drownings occurred, to a campground concessionaire.

"What are we supposed to do?" asked Sheriffs Deputy Brian Thielst, who regularly patrols Paradise Road. "Wilderness is dangerous. If you can't swim, don't go near the water. It's hard for me to believe we've had three drownings. All of them seem like accidents that could have been avoided if people had been paying more attention."

Before this summer, there had been only two drownings in the canyon in the previous eight years, Deputy Thielst said. One of the victims drowned at a river crossing swollen by spring rain. The victim jumped into the rushing water to save his dog.

But the recent drownings occurred in placid waters. Two of the victims died in full view of the Live Oak picnic area, where the river widens as it flows gently by natural walls of mud and sandstone. The bottom is clearly visible in places here, but darker waters hint at unseen perils.

"It's pretty deceiving," Ms. Riddle said. "All those rocks are slippery. People don't understand there are inherent hazards -underwater rocks and boulders of all sizes and shapes, and moss-covered mud. It can drop off and people can lose their balance and be underwater, even if the water's not that deep."

Some of the Red Rock cliffs are carved with footholds and furnished with ropes to aid climbers, but there is no telling how deep the water is below, especially in a dry year. Sometimes, a running start is necessary for jumpers to clear the cliffs themselves.
"People assume that because they dove off of a rock last year, they can dive off of it this year," said Tony Biegen, who heads local Sierra Club outings.

Live Oak became a popular bathing spot about four years ago when a local church began holding barbecues there, Mr. Biegen said.
"There's no current right now, and you just assume that it's a safe place to be," he said. "But it's very dangerous. Every spring, it has changed from the previous winter's rains, so a place that might have been very shallow last year maybe very deep this year. You can be in water up to your knees, and then you drop off a rock and may be in water over your head."