BLM promotes dunes safety

November 21, 2001|By LAURA MITCHELL, Staff Writer

Visitors to the Glamis Sand Dunes have stretched the way the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the area's manager, defines its mission.

The bureau's mission is "to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the public lands," but protecting the health and safety of its visitors will be the focus this Thanksgiving weekend.

Visitors bring motor homes, dune buggies, motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles to ride in the sand dunes.

"Our clientele are driving high-performance vehicles, at a high rate of speed, in rough terrain," said John Unger, the bureau's seasonal emergency medical services coordinator for the dunes.

He said there have been problems with alcohol and drugs in the dunes.

The bureau does more medical calls per year than most, maybe all, of the parks in the nation, Unger said.

Unger is a nationally registered paramedic. He works at Yellowstone National Park for three months in the summer, then works at the Imperial Sand Dunes from September to May.


Unger said the Imperial Sand Dunes had 154 medical emergencies over the two weekends surrounding Halloween this year. He compared that to the 131 medical emergencies in Death Valley for all of last year.

Most of the medical emergencies the bureau handles are from motor vehicle trauma, a few heart attacks and a small number of scorpion stings, bureau spokesman Neil Hamada said.

The bureau expects an estimated 100,000 visitors in the sand dunes this Thanksgiving weekend, Hamada said. The population of Imperial County is about 142,000.

Over the entire season last year, 1.4 million visitors came to the sand dunes, Hamada said.

The bureau performs about 800 medical rescues a year at the local dunes, Unger said.

Unger said it is difficult to track the exact number of emergency calls. He said he can get so many emergencies in one night he usually does not know the status of the person he treated once the person is taken to the hospital.

"We're running on pace for 800 medical emergencies so far this year, but we won't know definitely until the end of the season," Unger said.

Unger said he is not aware of any other organized rescue team within the bureau, at least not one that operates at the scope and scale as the rescue team out of the El Centro office.

Dune users have balked at permit fees established in January 1999. Campers pay $10 for a week or $30 for a year. In comparison, vehicle fees at Yellowstone are $20 for a week and $40 for a year.

The money collected from permit fees was used to purchase a retro-fitted, emergency medical dune buggy for $44,500 and a 26-foot first aid and information trailer for $24,365.

The trailer serves as an temporary emergency medical room and, with beds and tables folded up, also carries the buggy.

The bureau also was able to get nine seasonal park rangers and medical people in place by September for this season with the money collected. Last year, the bureau only had three seasonal employees and didn't have them until December, Unger said.

Unger said the bureau never had a medical staff in place before Halloween.

One of the medical rescue team's biggest challenges is locating the emergency, Unger said.

"Cell phones have been the best piece of equipment, for us and for the visitors," Unger said. "When we get an emergency call on a cell phone from someone who is lost, we can say, ‘Stand up on a dune and wave so we can find you.'"

The safety of dunes visitors is not the bureau's only concern.

Sometimes campers get rowdy with bureau or other law enforcement officers.

Last year during the Thanksgiving weekend, a ranger was struck by a beer can thrown from a crowd. The ranger received a gash on his head but was able to go back to work right away.

In 1999, dune visitors almost rioted. A number of out-of-control people resisted law enforcement trying to keep peace in the dunes. Officers and civilians were injured in the incident.

>> Staff Writer Laura Mitchell can be reached at 337-3452 or

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