APNewsBreak: Agency had 1 ranger patrol 50-mile race where truck killed 8 in Mojave Desert

By Daisy Nguyen, AP
Wednesday, August 25, 2010

APNewsBreak: 1 ranger patrolled deadly Calif race

LOS ANGELES — A federal agency said Wednesday it had just one ranger patrolling a 50-mile off-road race course where a competing truck killed eight spectators gathered close to the Mojave Desert course.

The Bureau of Land Management said the ranger was patrolling the course in the Johnson Valley off-highway vehicle area more than a week ago when a spectator flagged him down and reported the truck had slammed into the crowd and overturned.

“The ranger immediately responded, and once at the scene, quickly assessed the situation, and called for emergency support,” said Jan Bedrosian, BLM deputy state director of external affairs, said in a statement.

The BLM, which issued permits for the 200-mile, four-lap race, has maintained that the event’s organizer was responsible for safety.

The tragedy has raised questions about the agency’s oversight of such events.

“It’s clear that the law enforcement presence was inadequate the night those people were tragically killed,” said Daniel Patterson, Southwest director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “Those deaths were preventable. Better decisions from the BLM could have helped keep those people alive.”

Asked whether it was typical to have one ranger patrol a race, Bedrosian said staffing levels are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

The BLM’s field office in Barstow, which oversees the Johnson Valley, has 10 rangers on staff to patrol approximately 300,000 acres of land that are open to off-road vehicles, according to a grant application by the BLM seeking law enforcement funding from the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

Overall, the BLM is responsible for managing nearly 11 million acres of California desert land.

The application said patrols are conducted daily, but that most occur on weekends, evenings and holidays, when the number of visitors to the off-road areas drastically increase. It noted that on holiday weekends “it is not uncommon to have 20,000 plus visitors” to the Dumont Dunes off-road area about 170 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

Retired ranger Ed Patrovsky said a single ranger might patrol a million acres or monitor a race alone.

“There were times I worked alone, and with so much going on, it was easy to be overwhelmed,” said Patrovsky, who retired about five years ago from the Ridgecrest field office. “I don’t know how it was for the ranger who worked this particular event, but one person for a 50-mile race course is just ridiculous. If you’re the only person working, it’s easy to feel vulnerable.”

The Aug. 14 tragedy occurred amid fans partying close to the race course.

Videos posted on YouTube showed spectators standing within feet of the sand track as competitors sped over a jump. One truck smashed into the crowd and ended up on its roof.

Promoter Mojave Desert Racing’s own rules require fans to stay 100 feet away from the course.

MDR has not returned repeated calls and e-mails since the accident. The organizer’s permit allowed no more than 300 spectators for the race, but authorities believe hundreds more were at the free admission event.

In an effort to step up enforcement following the crash, the BLM had eight employees, including three rangers, staff a motorcycle race in the same area last weekend. BLM said the race went off without any problem.

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