Oregon Officials Discuss Why Warning Signs at State Park Being Ignored

By ZACH URNESS, Statesman Journal | March 9, 2016

How do you get 19-year-olds to pay attention to warning signs?

That’s the question, in a nutshell, that state parks officials, lawmakers and community members face as they attempt to reduce the troubling number of deaths at Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area.

Seven people have died at the popular Oregon Coast destination since 2009, including five during the past eight months. The average age of the victims is 19.

Most of the time, the victims hiked up a sand dune, disregarded fencing and signs, climbed onto a hazardous sandstone bluff and fell into the ocean.

“It’s a beautiful place, it’s easy to reach, and there are lots of people that climb up there,” said Chris Havel, a spokesman for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. “It’s one of those places that draws people in and, even when they’re confronted by signs and fences, they stop thinking about safety.”

In response to the most recent incidents – two fatal accidents in February – state and county officials, along with Sen. Arnie Roblan, are taking part in a town hall meeting March 17 in Pacific City to discuss how to prevent future incidents.

There have been fencing and signs warning people to stay off the bluff since 1996. The fencing was extended to 1,275 feet long following a fatal accident in 2009.

Parks officials are hoping for more input from the community on what things they could try to dissuade people from climbing to the dangerous location.

“More fencing and signs – along with devoting more staff time through park rangers – are the things we know how to do, and that’s where we’ll start at the meeting,” Havel said. “But we want to hear from the community and listen to other suggestions.”

Slick Rick Nelson, a 17-year-old football player from Sprague High School, fell backward off the cliff at Cape Kiwanda in June 2015 and died from traumatic injuries.

“We were just hanging out, having a bonfire, and some people went up to the top (of the dune),” Brendan Hassler, 16, who was present at the time of the accident, told the Statesman Journal this past June. “It was dark, and he tried to sit down and there was nothing there (to sit down on), and he was just gone.”

Havel said most accidents follow a familiar pattern.

People begin at the popular parking area near the Pelican Pub and Brewery. They climb the large sandy dune – a popular hike – but then walk around or through the fencing and warning signs toward the sandstone bluff.

“In terms of what makes that specific area so dangerous, a big part is that the sandstone bluff is not strong, especially being so exposed to wind, rain and the ocean,” Havel said. “It looks safe, but it really is not stable.”

In February, David Lopez, 19, of Woodburn and Megan Owens, 17, of Marysville, Washington, fell from the cliffs into the ocean. Both went around the fencing and past the signs.

The problem, officials said, is trying to come up with ways to keep people – and specifically risk-taking teenagers – from going past the fencing.

The “signs and fences are not designed to stop a determined person from putting themselves at risk,” Havel said.

“In our opinion, no matter what kind of fence you put up, they’ll probably go around it,” Tillamook County Sheriff Andy Long told The Oregonian.

Not all fatal accidents occur in the same way, however. In 2014, James Alejandro, 25, was swept out to sea and drowned after setting up a slack line – or tightrope – in a cove near a cliff.

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