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From hot springs to Hagg Lake, signs must make dangers clear

Colin Nathaniel Scott — a young, intelligent, newly-minted Pacific University grad — died last week after falling into a 200-degree thermal pool at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

Because of the extreme temperature and high acidity of the hot spring, there were “no remains left” of Scott’s body to recover, park officials said of this calamity that didn’t have to happen.

According to his college adviser, Scott — a 23-year-old psychology major who graduated summa cum laude last month — was an extremely responsible, mature guy, “the antithesis of the sort of person who would be reckless, do risky things, disobey rules.”

Yet he and his sister walked 225 yards off a designated boardwalk above Yellowstone’s Norris Geyser Basin, apparently ignoring signs that said, “Unstable ground. Boiling water. Stay on designated trails.”

They aren’t the only ones who’ve done so. At least 20 people are known to have died from hot spring-related injuries in and around Yellowstone since 1890, park officials said.

We can’t say it strongly enough: while on your summer adventures, please obey the signs at parks, lakes, rivers and other attractions — they’re there for good reason.

In late May, just before the Memorial Day holiday, public officials in Washington County hosted a water safety event at Henry Hagg Lake south of Forest Grove, a beautiful venue enjoyed by thousands of folks each year. They pointed out the wisdom of always wearing life jackets while playing in the water.

A drowning accident at the lake in August 2014 in which four non-swimming members of a Hillsboro family perished in a single afternoon prompted the addition of eight new life preserver kiosks at Hagg Lake. More than 170 life jackets, both child and adult sizes, are now available for swimmers to use.

However, signs cautioning visitors to Scoggins Valley Park — and in particular, the Sain Creek Picnic Area — are still not clear about the danger to non-swimmers who plan to stay in shallow water.

After the tragic drownings in 2014, Gaston resident and water-safety activist Michael Medill put up homemade signs that used words and pictures to clearly warn swimmers of the dangerous drop-offs. But county officials removed those and replaced them with yellow, diamond-shaped signs featuring a drawing of a life vest and saying simply, “Wear it!” in English and Spanish.

A small drawing below the life vest depicts two stick figures. One appears to be standing in deep water with its head above the surface. The other appears to be floating above an underwater dropoff.

But the drawing is misleading. For one thing, the dropoff that was blamed for the deaths of the Hillsboro family was a good 10 or 15 feet straight down — not the two or three feet pictured on the county’s sign.

Worse, the drawing appears to indicate that the dropoff is so far out in the lake that adults wouldn’t step over it until they were up to their shoulders in water.

Non-swimmers who only plan to wade could understandably have a deceptive sense of safety. Why wear a life jacket if they’re only going to wade up to their knees?

In reality, as water recedes over the dry summer, the dropoff point becomes shallower and shallower.

An iPhone video taken by the grandmother shortly before she and her other three family members drowned, shows the other three “playing with a floating log in shallow water,” (emphasis ours) according to a Washington County Sheriff’s Office report. Nearby, the report notes, is “a visible change in the water color which appears to indicate a change in water depth. The individuals come close to this area of color change but never cross it.”

As we extend our sincere condolences to Colin Scott’s family, we remember this other family and emphasize once again that when dealing with Mother Nature, it only takes a split second for something to go terribly, fatally wrong.