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High Surf, Hot Day: a Volatile Mix

With beaches unusually crowded, lifeguards across Orange County make dozens of rescues.

October 11, 1999|ANA CHOLO-TIPTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A mix of unseasonably hot weather, storm-churned surf and hordes of beach-goers led to dozens of surfside rescues Sunday, taxing a skeleton crew of lifeguards on Orange County beaches.

Huntington City Beach officials reported 46 rescues on Saturday alone--the usual number of rescues for the entire month of October--and more than 20 on Sunday.

No serious injuries were reported. But lifeguards from Seal Beach to San Clemente struggled to keep up: Beach crowds over the weekend easily topped 20,000 to 30,000 in some areas, numbers typically seen on summer days, not on fall weekends.

In Seal Beach, every lifeguard was on duty, similar to beach spots elsewhere, where the conditions required that off-duty and summer-duty lifeguards report for work. At some beaches, lifeguards reopened guard towers already shuttered for the winter.

San Clemente lifeguard Richmond Mills juggled nonstop radio calls as 1,000 beachgoers--more than double the usual number--planted towels at the city's small beach. Lifeguards had handled 12 rescue calls by late Sunday.

"It's been a low-tide, big-wave, rip-current-pulling type day," an out-of-breath Mills said Sunday afternoon.

In Laguna Beach, the treacherous surf found victims both in the water and out as eight overworked lifeguards sprinted to keep up.

One man fell 8 feet off a slick surfside cliff Sunday, ripping off part of an ear and injuring his back and neck, said senior lifeguard Joshua Bynum. Another beachgoer broke his arm, and at least five others suffered facial cuts on the slippery rocks abutting the beach, he said. And lifeguards made many rescues in vicious riptides lurking beneath the surf.

"It's crankin'," Bynum said. "It's like summer, but it's not that bad. We're taking care of it all."

On Newport Beach's 7.5 miles of coastline, watch commander Brent Jacobsen called in an additional 15 people--quadrupling his staff--to handle the unexpected 50,000 beachgoers seeking relief from the heat.

"We have a light summer day crowd, but what makes it challenging is that we usually have 40 lifeguard towers open, 12 to 13 Jeeps out plus three lifeguard boats and four supervisors," Jacobsen said. "Right now, we're making do with 10 towers, two supervisors and no boats out."

Lifeguards warned several hundred novices away from the rough waves over the weekend, Jacobsen said. A couple dozen people required first aid and several needed more serious medical attention, he said.

The story was the same elsewhere as waves as high as 5 to 8 feet pounded the shore--the remnants of a storm that passed through New Zealand last month.

"We have strong swells, strong currents," said Huntington State Beach lifeguard Ryan Williams, who was called in to work Sunday. "Just the fact that we have the [rescue] boat out is fairly unusual."

While the warm weather, with temperatures in the high 70s to mid-80s, is expected to continue today, the surf should be smaller, according to the National Weather Service.

But at Huntington State Beach, the summer-like beach crowds were more than welcome.

Only three days ago, lifeguards there took down signs warning of contamination in the water. The beach, which runs for 2.2 miles from the Santa Ana River jetties to Beach Boulevard, was finally clear, said lifeguard Kathleen Snow.

The beach had opened again for Labor Day weekend, but contamination was still present in the water. Most of the staff had been on call and were not needed until this weekend.

On Sunday, about 5,000 people were at that beach, a high number considering the problems, Snow said.

"People were used to not coming to the beach," she said. "It's good to see people coming back."

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