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MailTribune.com
  • Road signage under review

    Kim tragedy gives agencies a reason to re-examine safety
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  • There but for the lack of snow went Geeno Valdez, who says he would have become a local version of the Kim family tragedy had his ordeal on Bear Camp Road not been in the summer.
    Valdez, a retired teacher living in Medford, said road maps and poor signs lured him, like they did the Kims, onto the now infamous route for a trip between Grants Pass and Gold Beach.
    Trying to follow signs pointing to Gold Beach, Valdez and his wife got lost several times and spent the night in their car before eventually finding their way home safely.
    "It's misleading that the maps and the signs say that road goes to Gold Beach," Valdez said Thursday, a day after James Kim's body was discovered in a creek near where his family's car was stranded.
    "I followed the signs that family did and the same thing happened to me, only it was summer," Valdez said. "Thank God."
    New signs, different signs, road gates and other possible changes to how traffic is managed on Bear Camp Road could become the fallout from the Kims' tragedy, according to federal land managers.
    Officials from the federal Bureau of Land Management, the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and others plan to huddle soon on how they can balance safety needs while still keeping thousands of acres of forestland accessible to the public.
    "We're going to review the circumstances we have and see what options we have," said Patty Burel, spokesperson for the BLM and Forest Service here. "We'll be consulting with our county and state agencies to allow the public access as well as provide public safety."
    Kim, his wife, Kati, and their two daughters had been missing since Nov. 25 while heading toward their home in San Francisco after a trip to Seattle. They had reservations at a Gold Beach lodge and planned to take Highway 42 to the coast but missed the turn.
    After consulting a map, they chose to travel the Bear Camp Road route, but got lost and stuck in snow along a paved spur road.
    James Kim struck out Saturday in search of help. A helicopter crew Monday rescued Kati Kim and her daughters, all of whom stayed with the car.
    James Kim's body was found Wednesday about a mile from the car, though he had walked about 10 miles in the snow, authorities said. Thursday's autopsy revealed that he died of hypothermia.
    Watching the Kims' tragedy unfold in the national media, Dan Roth sat in his Atlanta house remembering his unwanted adventure on Bear Camp Road in early September.
    With his girlfriend in a rented Escort, Roth set out around 5 p.m. out of Gold Beach looking for a shortcut to Ashland, where they had tickets for a Shakespeare play as part of their tourist trip to Southern Oregon.
    But the narrow, one-lane road with occasional turnouts and graveled parts where slides occurred proved harrowing. Four hours of white-knuckled driving later, he was ecstatic to pull into Galice.
    "It didn't look so bad on the map, but I had never been so glad to be on a lousy, two-lane road to Grants Pass, " said Roth, a 50-year-old pediatrician.
    "The way you push the tourism, you need some real signs warning people not to do it," he said. "A big sign, with flashing lights. Anything."
    Burel said the Kim family drove past four signs warning that any of the coastal routes through the forest there are at least three possible routes could be impassable due to snowdrifts.
    On Nov. 22, the BLM ordered another sign warning that snow could block the road, Burel said. That sign arrived Thursday and will be placed about 4.5 miles up the Merlin-Galice Access Road portion of the trek, she said.
    "That would have been the fifth sign," Burel said.
    The Bear Camp route has a gate on the Agness side that is closed only when road slides leave it impassable, Burel said.
    The spur road where the Kims' car was found BLM Road No. 34-8-36 had a gate that was locked in early November, Burel said. But someone had vandalized the lock and opened the gate prior to the Kims driving past it, and BLM agents are investigating the vandalism, she said.
    "That, apparently, contributed to this tragic incident," Burel said.
    James Kim was not the first tourist to die after getting stranded on that route.
    Dewitt Finley, a Montana salesman, stayed with his pickup when he became stranded near the top of Bear Camp Road in November 1991 en route from Gold Beach to Interstate 5. Finley's pickup, with his body in it, were found the following May.
    Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.
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