Press release from Transylvania County Tourism Development Authority:
With vacationers arriving throughout popular outdoor destinations in western North Carolina, park, forest and emergency management leaders will gather in Pisgah National Forest at Cove Creek Group Campground on Thursday, May 31st, at 10 am to spread the word about waterfall safety.
This press event is sponsored by the Transylvania County Tourism Development Authority (TCTDA), which promotes tourism to the area through its “Land of Waterfalls” brand.
In addition to remarks by park, forest and emergency management leaders, a team from the Transylvania County Emergency Management and Transylvania County Rescue Squad will perform a staged waterfall rescue.
“We thought it would be impactful for people to see what a waterfall rescue actually looks like,” said Bobby Cooper, EMS director for Transylvania County. “We hope this is an image that will stick in people’s minds and serve as a reminder of the potential for injury to themselves and their loved ones when they are in the vicinity of moving water.”
Transylvania County experienced six waterfall fatalities in 2016. That tragic toll was the impetus for the creation of the waterfall safety campaign by the TCTDA in 2017 with support from local leadership at Pisgah National Forest, DuPont State Recreational Forest, Gorges State Park and Transylvania County EMS.
Following a waterfall safety campaign launch in June of 2017 that garnered widespread media coverage, the TCTDA distributed waterfall safety cards at several visitor centers throughout the area and created new waterfall safety signage at Sliding Rock.
Additionally, Pisgah National Forest, DuPont State Recreational Forest and Gorges State Park installed new warning signs in key areas.
In 2017, there was only one waterfall safety fatality in Transylvania County.
Mission Health, where many waterfall injuries are taken, also experienced a 47% drop in waterfall injuries from fiscal year 2016 to fiscal year 2017.
However, two recent waterfall fatalities (one in upstate South Carolina at Whitewater Falls and another at Elk River Falls in Avery County, NC) underscore the fact that waterfall safety is an important topic both locally and regionally.
“While Transylvania County has the largest concentration of waterfalls in North Carolina, there are several other neighboring counties that are experiencing the same problems,” remarked David Casey, district ranger for the Pisgah Ranger District which encompasses Transylvania, Buncombe and Haywood counties. “Ideally, we’d like this initiative to become a regional effort.”
Record park and forest visitation in recent years has further reinforced the need to spread the word and point out the potential of injury and even death.
“We don’t want to scare people, but we do want to do our best to help prepare visitors so they can enjoy a forest experience safely and responsibly,” said Bruce MacDonald, a ranger at DuPont State Recreational Forest. “Unlike an amusement park, our forests are not engineered for safety. That’s the mindset that we’re trying hard to impart to visitors.”
Scott Justus, Deputy Fire Marshal for Transylvania County Emergency Services will be conducting the waterfall safety rescue exercise. Justus got his start in rescue work as a volunteer firefighter in Henderson County as a fifteen year old. Today, he has more than 25 years of rescue experience.
“You would be amazed at the resources that need to be put into motion when you have a serious incident,” Justus said. “The United States Forest Service here in Pisgah, the North Carolina Forest Service in DuPont, North Carolina State Parks in Gorges, Transylvania County Emergency Services, Transylvania County Rescue Squad and the eight volunteer and paid fire departments across the county. The list goes on and on.”
As an employee of the Transylvania County Emergency Management Team, he has seen an upward trend over the last several years when it comes to waterfall incidents, including Transylvania County, Haywood and Henderson Counties.
“In the last ten years, we’ve seen a big jump,” Justus said. “For every one fatality that you hear about, you have ten or more injuries such as, broken bones, head injuries, sprained ankles that we respond too, that do not make the news. We want everyone to enjoy the waterfalls, but to be safe doing it.”
Surprisingly, the victims of many waterfall related incidents are from the area.
“Last year, just 26% of the injuries we treated at Mission were from out-of-state visitors,” said Jackie Gosnell, Trauma Program Manager at Mission Health. “And of the 74% in state injuries, only 24% were outside of WNC.”
“It’s clear that our waterfall safety initiative needs to be directed toward visitors and residents alike,” said Grant Bullard, chairman of the Transylvania County Tourism Development Authority. “The last thing we want is for someone’s day in the woods ruined because of a momentary lack of judgement or carelessness. If we can begin raising people’s level of awareness while they are in and around waterfalls, we can prevent a lot of these accidents.”