Accidents at local falls raise questions over who is responsible for public safety on our public lands
By Miriam Raftery
February 6, 2011 (San Diego’s East County) -- A hiker, 56, lost her footing and feel nearly 30 feet on the trail to Three Sisters Waterfall east of Ramona this afternoon. Initial reports indicated she had suffered a head injury, according to Deputy Scott Bligh with San Diego Sheriff’s search and rescue team. She was later found to have an open compound fracture of her forearm, as well as complaints of pain in her back and hips.
Sheriff’s Copter 10, crewed by Cal Fire and Sheriff’s personnel and launched from Gillespie Field in El Cajon, flew to the victim’s location at Boulder Creek, which feeds into the San Diego River and is bordered by steep canyon walls on all sides. The helicopter’s public address system was needed to help locate the victim due to the high number of hikers on the nearby trails. She was treated for shock and hoisted into the helicopter for a flight to the Ramona Fire Station, where paramedics continued her treatment.
In late January, East County Magazine’s editor Miriam Raftery hiked the trail to Three Sisters Waterfall. (Read her article on the experience here: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/5317).
At least two members of her hiking group fell on a steep, slippery area with rocks and gravel loosened by the recent rains. Our editor asked U.S. Forest Service representative Steve Harvey at Cleveland National Forest whether the U.S.F.S. was aware of the hazard or had plans to improve the trail.
“Three sisters is not an official Forest Service trail and therefore is not maintained,” Harvey said at that time, adding that it is considered a user-created trail. He further said that private citizens or groups would not be allowed to volunteer to repair the trail, either. “it would take official designation, which first requires extensive environmental review,” he explained.
Deputy Perry with San Diego Sheriff’s Search and Rescue expressed surprise at the Forest Service’s response. “It seems common sense that if nobody is maintaining the trail, there might be an increased risk to the hikers,” he said.
Following today’s injury, ECM spoke with Sheriff’s fire-rescue pilot Tony Webber, who has been performing rescues for 25 years. “We’re surprised that we aren’t pulling more people down from there,” he said of the Three Sisters trail. Today’s rescue was the department’s first at Three Sisters in 2011, and the second hoist rescue this year (the other was at Cedar Creek Falls, another popular destination). No rescues were done at Three Sisters in 2010, the department’s heaviest year ever for hoist rescues, Webber said.
But that could change. Internet websites for hikers are dramatically increasing the number of people who learn about Three Sisters Falls and Cedar Creek Falls, another popular hiking trail in East County.
“Word has gotten out. We have seen the biggest crowds we’ve ever seen in 2010. It’s not uncommon to see 75 to 100 people at Cedar Creek,” said Webber, adding that as many as 25 to 30 at a time may be found on the Three Sisters Falls trail.
Both falls have been the scenes of serious injuries—and worse—through the years.
Cedar Creek currently accounts for the most rescues, even though Cedar Creek Falls is a better maintained trail. That’s because novice hikers are more apt to tackle Cedar Creek Falls, andoften fail to bring enough water, become dehydrated or even suffer heat strokes. There are also injuries caused by people jumping or diving off rocks at Cedar Creek. “Since I’ve been here we’ve had at least two deaths out of Cedar Creek,” Webber recalled, who helped recover the bodies during both diving accidents.
But the Three Sisters Trail is more hazardous in some respects, Webber suggests. “Three Sisters is a more rugged trail, more vertical, and there is a lot of loose dirt and rock. If you’re not in very good shape, this is not the hike for you.”
When ECM’s editor hiked the trail in late January, more than one member of the hiking party slipped and fell down a steep section with rocks loosened by the recent rains and a lot of loose gravel. Once you began falling, there was nothing to grip onto to stop the fall. Even a hiking stick with pointed end was not enough to prevent tumbles. Experienced hikers said the trail seemed worse than they’d remembered, probably due to the heavy winte rains.
Today’s injured hiker “tumbled head over heels” on loose rocks, said Webber, who was not present during this rescue, nor could he confirm the precise location of her accident.
Perhaps the most treacherous area is the ascent/descent at the top of the trio of falls at Three Sisters, an area not for the faint-hearted. Webber recalled one of his firsts rescues there a dozen years ago of a couple at the upper pool. “She was trying to cross the creek and started to slide over the top fall,” Webber recalled. “He tried to grab her and went over with her.” The couple suffered compression back injuries. “There is a long history of injuries there,” said Webber.
The scenery at both falls is breathtaking and they are favorite recreation spots for East County residents and increasingly, visitors. During her hike, ECM’s editor encountered tourists from Germany on the trail, who had heard about it on the Internet.
Cedar Falls cascades 80 feet. The middle fall at Three Sisters drops about 50 feet into a verdant green pool; many hikers bring swimsuits and slide down the lower fall.
A U.S. F.S. representative indicated that improvements are planned on one section of the Cedar Falls trail. But no such action is planned at Three Sisters, where the Forest Services is turning a blind eye to public safety on a trail that it’s well aware is commonly used. A sign at the trailhead for Three Sisters, for example, cautions hikers not to bring dogs off –leash. Hikers who purchase passes at the Cleveland National Forest headquarters in Alpine are advised to list their destinations.
Nobody wants to see the trail to Three Sisters closed or access restricted. “Even if it were closed, people who know the trails are there would still hike it,” Webber notes.
Since it’s no secret anymore that spectacular waterfalls exist in East County, some trail users are asking whether the U.S. Forest Service will take action to designate the Three Sisters Waterfalls trail an official trail, which would enable public safety to be be protected and the trail maintained or repaired as needed.
While nobody expects paved Disneyland-style trails in a wilderness area, some users suggest that it's common sense for the entity that owns the land used by the public to check popular trails occassionally and clear hazards such as debris or rockslides, particularly after a storm or earthquake.
ECM will be contacting our federal representatives to ask what steps if any they support to address the safety issue, such as seeking official designation for this trail or waiving a rule to allow some interim step be taken to improve safety in areas where people have already been injured or reported hazards.
If the U.S. Forest Service has been notified of a hazard within its boundaries and ignores that hazard, knowing people are hiking the trail, there is also the prospect of taxpayers bearing legal liability if someone in the future suffers serious injury injured and files suit.
Meanwhile, hiking enthusiasts remain concerned that the public's ability to safely enjoy one of the most scenic attractions on our federal forestland in East County has taken a backseat to a bureaucratic blind spot.