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Yuma's ATV riders urged to tread lightly at sand dunes

By Cpl. Laura A. Mapes | | April 9, 2009

Since 2003, roughly 65 off-road deaths have occurred at the Imperial Sand Dunes in California, just 30 miles west of the air station here.

The most recent death hit a little closer to home for some Yuma Marines.

A Marine with Marine Wing Support Squadron 371 died March 7 after his all-terrain vehicle rolled over him in the dunes.

Due to the recent incident, Master Sgt. Russell Reale, Yuma's Search and Rescue maintenance chief, held a voluntary ATV safety brief for Marines here April 2 at the SAR hangar.

“We had a Marine that just died in the dunes, and to me that is preventable,” said Reale.

Although the riding season is almost over here, Reale wanted to get a message of safety out for those who will continue to ride this summer.

“The No. 1 cause of fatality out in the dunes is a lack of terrain familiarity,” said Joya Szalwinski, a Bureau of Land Management park ranger at Imperial Sand Dunes, who spoke at the brief. “Not knowing the area you are riding can be disastrous.”

During the brief, Szalwinski reviewed the weather and topography of the dunes. She urged riders to be cautious when off-roading and to watch out for dangerous terrain.

“When the wind starts shifting around during the summer, the sand is going to start stacking up, and that is where you get slip faces and razor edges,” said Szalwinski. “A witch’s eye is a hole or divot in the sand caused by wind. If you find yourself in a witch’s eye, you’ve got nowhere to go and you’re stuck.”

Riding in the dunes in the middle of the day, when the sun is directly overhead, is also ill-advised because the sun can eliminate shadows and the dunes can become deceiving and dangerous, said Szalwinski.

One tip for avoiding trouble in the sand dunes is to stay with the vehicle if it gets stuck, because the farther away from the vehicle riders are, the harder it is for them to be found.

“The key is to be prepared,” said Szalwinski. “Bring your water, first aid, a tool kit and extra parts, and always wear your personal protective equipment.”

The sand at the dunes can reach upward of 120 degrees in the summer when heat exhaustion and heat strokes are not uncommon.

“Heat injuries are a big deal out here, so we really urge you to drink water,” said Szalwinski. “Three to five gallons per day may seem like a lot, but it is the difference that could save your life.”

Reale took the riders out to the dunes the next day to practice what they learned on their ATVs and dirt bikes.

“My intent behind this is to have the more experienced riders pass on their knowledge of the dunes to the inexperienced rider,” said Reale.

While the riding season ends in May, Reale plans to hold an all-hands safety brief when the season starts in September.

“Some of the riders in this class have been riding for years, but are inexperienced in the dunes,” said Capt. Dan Moench, Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron training officer. “The class was extremely helpful and taught us how to read the terrain.”

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