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Bracing State Parks warning may be saving American River lives

Zero American River deaths this year near Auburn
By: Gus Thomson, Reporter/Columnist
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Sergio Garcia made a deadly dare and lost his life when he plunged into the icy, swift-flowing north fork American River near Auburn.

And while the 20-year-old Thornton college student’s June 2017 death in the canyon near Auburn was a tragedy, it moved State Parks rangers to introduce a new safety measure that is believed to have played a major role since then in preventing more lives lost since.

Superintendent Mike Howard of the Auburn State Recreation Area said that there were several close calls in the canyon but deaths this year on the river had not taken place.

And one of the reasons is believed to be a warning measure that came as a direct result of an electric board sign that was posted during the high-water period for a month after Garcia’s death, he said.

During the month the message to stay out of the water and stay alive was up, there were no fatalities in Auburn State Recreation Area related to the river. The river has two forks — the middle and north — that converge at the confluence in the canyon below Auburn.

On the premise that a no-holds-barred prevention message might work, State Parks created a fact sheet highlighting a heartbreaking but little-known fact: “Since 1986, 44 people have drowned in Auburn State Recreation Area’s rivers.”

The message from Howard went on to state several safety measures the more-than-1-million visitors who come to the park annually can take to prevent another death on the water.

They included keeping away from the water in the spring, when most of the drownings occur and when rivers are running cold and fast in hot weather that attracts more people to the recreation area.

And it seemed to hit home. In 2017, there were three deaths. This year, after the laminated messages were posted throughout the park, no one has died in the river.

“It captures people’s attention better than a typical safety message,” Howard said.

And Howard said that with the success this year a similar approach will be used next year to try to prevent future deaths.

A new round of lifejackets placed at popular river spots may also have played a role in the drop in deaths, Howard said.

Howard said deaths like Garcia’s are not just hard on families and friends of the victim, they also are tough on emergency personnel.

“The hardest thing is that it’s so preventable,” he said. “They just need to stay out.”