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Federal agency failed to follow safety rules prior to desert crash, report finds

The Bureau of Land Management's state director says it is cooperating fully with the CHP investigation into the August crash during the California 200 in which eight people were killed and 10 hurt.

November 20, 2010|By Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times

The federal Bureau of Land Management failed to follow its own safety and regulatory procedures during an August off-road desert race in San Bernardino County in which eight spectators were killed after a racer crashed into a crowd, an internal agency report released Friday concluded.

Similar failures for permitted off-road events occurred throughout the 11 million acres of California desert under the federal agency's control, the report found.

"We are cooperating fully with the California Highway Patrol's ongoing investigation into the accident, but our own internal review found we did not follow agency procedures in permitting and overseeing the event," acting BLM State Director Jim Abbott said in a prepared statement released Friday. "We have swiftly taken corrective action … raising the bar for oversight and safety at all such events, and moving forward with a sense of shared responsibility and accountability."

Eight spectators were killed and 10 seriously injured in the California 200 night race in the Lucerne Valley when driver Brett Sloppy of San Marcos lost control of his modified Ford Ranger pickup after going airborne on a hill known as the "rock pile," where hundreds of fans had gathered to watch the race. The truck rolled into the crowd, which had crept to within a few feet of the track, just minutes after the race began.

The report also noted that the sponsor of the race, Mojave Desert Racing of South El Monte, told the federal agency that an estimated 200 to 300 people would attend the race. In fact, up to 2,000 spectators turned out.

Witnesses and video of the race, one of more than 130 such events held annually on BLM-controlled land in the California desert, showed that Mojave Desert Racing failed to adhere to a requirement in its BLM permit to keep spectators 50 feet away from the racing vehicles.

California Highway Patrol investigators said the truck came to rest less than 10 feet from the racecourse. The driver will not face charges related to the crash because it occurred during a "sanctioned" sporting event permitted by the BLM and did not involve public roadways, CHP officials have said.

However, the CHP is continuing its investigation and could ultimately hand over the agency's finding to local prosecutors, the state attorney general's office or the U.S. attorney's office, said Officer Daniel Hesser, spokesman for the CHP's Inland division.

Patricia Williams, owner of Mojave Desert Racing, on Friday said she was still studying the federal agency's findings and declined to comment.

BLM's national director, Bob Abbey, also issued a directive stating that no permits for off-road races or other events on BLM lands are to be issued if agency officials cannot ensure proper oversight and required safety measures cannot be implemented and enforced.

Daniel Patterson with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an advocacy group of government workers that has clashed with off-roaders, said the BLM in its report essentially admitted that the agency "let's the off-roaders run things" and that oversight has been nonexistent.

"We can see that when eight people are killed," Patterson said. "If the federal government cannot control these events and protect the safety of spectators, and protect the land, then why is the government permitting these events?"

Patterson added that BLM rangers are being pulled away from patrolling other federal lands — as far away as Wyoming — to monitor the off-road races in California, in essence subsidizing for-profit race promoters.

BLM spokeswoman Erin Curtis said the agency has the authority to recoup all costs after BLM employees work 50 hours on an event. In the past, the agency rarely did so, but that will no longer be the case, she said.

The rangers brought into California for special events typically are from "off-season" locations where there are few visitors, she said. The BLM's California Desert District, where most of the off-road racing occurs, currently has 38 rangers patrolling 11 million acres.

Since the Aug. 14 tragedy at the California 200, about a dozen applications have been submitted for off-road events. Of those, four have been denied because of inadequate notice or failure to adhere to permit requirements. All races sponsored by Mojave Desert Racing have been postponed.

Dave Earll of the Valencia-based U.S. Desert Racing, which promotes desert motorcycle races, said BLM ramped up its oversight of all races since August. More rangers are patrolling race courses, and permits now require more stringent safety precautions for both spectators and racers.

"The biggest change has been BLM's presence at the race now," said Earll, whose organization just held a race outside Ridgecrest. "I think they're doing the right thing. It's more work for us, but we're all on the same page. You won't see any more spectators get killed."

phil.willon@latimes.com

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