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As summer approaches, officials host water safety event at Hagg Lake

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: TRAVIS LOOSE - Signs urging visitors to Hagg Lake to wear life jackets -- and warning them of a steep drop-off near the Sain Creek Picnic Area -- are posted at the popular venue near Gaston.With summer approaching, public safety officials from several local agencies are getting the word out to be extra careful while playing at Henry Hagg Lake south of Forest Grove.

To help out visiting water recreationists from around the region, for example, loner-life preserver kiosks have been setup at various popular swimming spots around the reservoir.

Following a tragic drowning accident at the lake in August 2014 in which members of a Hillsboro family perished in a single afternoon, eight additional life preserver kiosks were brought in. Now, between the four stationary and six moveable kiosks, more than 170 life jackets are available for swimmers to use — and they range in size from child to adult.

"We're trying to put a lot of emphasis on wearing life preservers at all times," said Julie McCloud, the public and government affairs assistant for Washington County.

To help push that campaign, free parking will be given to anyone who donates a new or gently used life jacket at the Scoggins Valley Park Ranger Station Saturday, May 28.

Life jacket donations are accepted at all times at every fire station in Washington County, at Metro West Ambulance in Hillsboro, and at the park's ranger station.

According to Safe Kids Washington County, drowning is second to car crashes as the leading causes of injury-related deaths among children aged 1 to 14 years — and some locals point to the lake's drop-off points as specific danger zones.

In September 2014, Gaston resident and water safety activist Michael Medill bolted several unauthorized, homemade signs to trees at the Sain Creek Picnic area warning swimmers of the dangerous drop-offs.

County officials eventually took the homemade signs down and replaced them with officially sanctioned ones: diamond shaped and yellow in color, the signs say simply, "Wear it!" in English and Spanish, and depict two stick figures — one standing in the water, the other swimming next to what could be the representation of a drop-off.

The challenge of getting signs up, however, is complicated by the reservoir's constantly changing conditions, McCloud said.

The lake's elevation, for example, can lower by 40 feet throughout the summer as water is released into the Tualatin River for residents to use in Forest Grove, Cornelius and Hillsboro.

There are two official signs at the Sain Creek Picnic area.

"The dilemma is where do you start and stop [the signage]?" McCloud asked. "Rather than focus on where signs should go, we want people to just have vests on at all times."

"Then the signs don't matter," added Storm Smith, prevention and education manager for Hillsboro Fire & Rescue.

Smith prefers the proactive approach to water safety and directs interested folks to the free water safety classes offered at the Shute Park Aquatic & Recreation Center (SHARC), 953 Southeast Maple St. in Hillsboro, and through the Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District (THPRD), 15707 S.W. Walker Road, at locations in Beaverton, Somerset and Aloha.

"The lake is not the best venue to teach swimming," Smith said. "Even scuba divers start in a pool."

Smith also encourages responsible adults to pick up a "water watcher card" when they pass the Ranger Station on their way to the lake.

"When you take one, you've volunteered to be 100 percent focused on the kids as a de facto lifeguard," Smith said. "When accidents happen and people drown, you often hear them say, 'I only turned my back for moment.' That's all it takes … it can happen that quickly."


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