Ocean Shores emergency departments look toward summer

Tens of thousands visit the shore, sometimes without knowing the rules in place

As gentlest spring heralds fair summer, where the sunlight abundant heats the blood in our veins like molten gold, lifting and enlivening us, the fire department and police of Ocean Shores prepare for the influx of tourists to one of Washington’s fairest coasts.

At least 150,000 visitors come through Ocean Shores each summer, estimated Police Chief Neccie Logan.

“It usually hits hard three-day weekend to three-day weekend,” Logan said in an interview. “Memorial Day to Labor Day is usually our heaviest.”

While the Fourth of July is the biggest single event, Logan said, there’s a steady flow of visitors throughout, ranging from day visitors to hotel guests to those renting residences. Folks come from far and wide to see the ocean, vast and perfect as it stretches on to infinity, hemmed only by the towering clouds scudding across the sky.

“The biggest draw to our city is the Pacific Ocean,” said Interim Fire Chief Brian Ritter. “We want them to have fun but use common sense. Wear a life jacket. Keep an eye on your kids. Have a good time.”

Fireworks injuries, intoxication, overdoses, car crashes and structure fires are all issues the departments deal with over the summer, particularly around the holidays, Ritter said.

“I wouldn’t say those are typical but those are some calls we have responded to in the past,” Ritter said. “We’re well prepared. We’ve been doing this for a long time.”

Fun by the seaside

Ocean Shores and the surrounding area are a major draw during the summer as inland residents flee the cities en masse to come stick their toes in the sand. Some stay at the hotels in the area — there are about 1,200 rooms, said George Lee, general manager of the Ocean Shores Convention Center. But that’s not enough for demand, said Deputy Chief Kyle Watson of OSPD.

“Our hotels are probably full right now for the Fourth,” Watson said in an interview.

Others stay in short-term rentals — many of which are in areas that aren’t zoned for that type of use, Logan said.

“We’ve got some that are legal. But we’ve got quite a few that are not,” Logan said. “We’re trying to figure things out on how we could track it better. We could actually dedicate a person to looking into it full-time.”

Many people buy a house and rent it out, not realizing the city’s ordinances around such, Logan said.

Rules of the road

Many tourists who visit are unaware of the rules regarding the beach, Logan said. The beach’s status as a state highway means that anything illegal to do on the roads is also illegal on the beach.

“A lot of it is really common sense. But when people come out here, they may think it’s not enforced or it’s a Wild West environment,” Ritter said. “Our locals are really good. Of course, there’s no fireworks allowed in the city. Our locals are really good about sharing the information.”

Doing donuts, camping on the beach, or having fires or fireworks within 100 feet of the dunes are all illegal on the beach, Logan said. Driving on the sand can also be treacherous in its own way, Ritter said. The area between Pacific Boulevard and Chance a la Mer is also a vehicle-free zone, according to the city website.

“Don’t park on the hardpack, don’t drive on the soft stuff. It’s a balancing act,” said Curt Begley, the fire inspector for OSFD. “Every day it’s totally different. That’s what I like about the beach.”

The beach is also subject to the tides, which can move quickly for the unwary. Every year, there are cars claimed by the ocean when their owners park them below the tideline and leave them unattended.

“I would say we do lose a couple cars each year,” Watson said. “It rolls ‘em and beats ‘em up.”

There’s no camping on the beach, and ATVs and other outdoor vehicles are illegal, Logan said. Oregon is the closest place where there are designated beach areas for vehicle sports.

Fourth of July

The Fourth is especially fraught for the departments, Ritter said, particularly if it falls on a weekend. This year, the holiday occurs on a Tuesday.

“Basically it’s all hands on deck. There’s a lot of prevention,” Ritter said. “I think we have it down to a fine science. We’ve done this in the past. It’s very well organized.”

Tens of thousands come to the region to celebrate, shoot off fireworks, and enjoy the beach, Ritter said, expressing his hopes that they’d respect the area and its rules.

“Come and have fun,” Ritter said. “But if you wouldn’t do it where you live, don’t do it here.”

The department brings in firefighters from other departments each year to help manage the fire risk from fireworks or campfires igniting the dune grass, followed by structures, Ritter said. In recent years, the fire department has shifted its operational posture from a defensive to an offensive one.

“We used to just sit at the fire station and wait for the fire call. With the number of people on our beaches, we’ve found the prevention stuff has been extremely effective,” Ritter said. “We have two brush rigs (trucks) that drive up and down the beaches. They drive up and down the buffer zone, which is 100 feet from the last blade of dune grass.”

Spotters placed high up on the oceanfront hotels also help coordinate efforts, Ritter said.

“We always have eyes on dunes,” Ritter said. “We’ll see a puff of smoke and it can turn into something big.”

A number of major fires in the past years, including one that threatened a dozen homes and another caused by a car driving on the dunes that destroyed the vehicle moved the department to be more proactive in their approach, Ritter said. People are generally very receptive when firefighters talk to them about safety, Ritter said.

“When midnight comes, when people are trying to get off the beach, some of those people have been consuming all day,” Ritter said. “We’ll see fender benders. We’ll see maybe some tempers when people are trying to leave.”

Firefighters also try to curtail the use of illegal fireworks, or the irresponsible use of legal ones. Fireworks need to be launched or used at least 100 feet from the dunes and aimed away from the dunes, Ritter said. They’re not legal for use in the city.

“We promote safe and sane fireworks, not illegal fireworks,” Ritter said. “Don’t shoot your roman candles at each other. It burns at 1,200 degrees.”

Illegal fireworks include firecrackers, bottle rockets, other sky rockets, and anything approaching classification as an IED. Mortars, sparklers, box launchers, roman candles, and smoke devices are all legal. For a more complete list, contact OSFD.

Respect the ocean

The ocean is as merciless as she is vast, as terrible as she is beautiful, and without due care, cold water and strong currents can cause a tragedy.

“During the day, especially if it’s nice, the tourists come out here and throw their kids in the ocean. They really got to pay attention to the rip currents,” Ritter said. “Don’t panic. Swim parallel to the beach to get out of it. Sometime’s it’s just as easy to stand up — it’s shallower than you might think.”

Ritter encouraged always wearing a life jacket if playing in the water and keeping a close eye on others in the water.

“Always keep your eye on the kids. Make sure they’re with a buddy,” Ritter said. “Pay attention to the water. The tides come in and out real fast.”

The cold waters of the Pacific can be a threat all on their own, Ritter said.

“The water temperature is a concern. It’s 52 degrees. It’s not warm tropical water. It’s cold,” Ritter said. “We’re really worried about their core body. Temperature. This is all generally past the point of just shivering.”

Bringing a little common sense can save time and lives, Ritter said.

“At the end of the day it’s really up to the tourists and the locals to pay attention to the water behavior and know their ability to swim,” Ritter said. “We don’t have a surf rescue team. We have to be very cautious about how far out they are. We’re calling the Coast Guard immediately.”

Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or mlockett@thedailyworld.com.