The Kims and Their Doomed Trip

The SAR Effort: Bungled or Undermined?

Who Was Responsible?

Lessons to Learn

Afterthoughts: Summer 2007

Media and Official Reports Archive

Lessons to Learn

Ultimately, the point of all these words is not to idly examine the actions of those involved in the Kim tragedy, but to use the lessons learned to devise a set of recommendations that might reduce future fatalities in the Oregon wilderness. At least some of these ideas might be more broadly applicable in the United States, or even farther afield.

I’ve divided ideas into two categories. One consists of ideas directly traceable to the Kim tragedy. By that, I mean ideas that, if they had been in place before the Kims entered the Rogue Wilderness, might have kept them out of the area to begin with, reduced the hazard of being there, or improved the chances that they would be rescued safely.

The other category of ideas are those that, while not bearing directly on the Kim tragedy, were generated by having been immersed in the story. I caution readers not to regard these indirect recommendations as evidence of failures relevant to the Kim case. Instead, they should be regarded as additional ideas that emerged while I was thinking about wilderness safety.

Ideas - Direct

BE PREPARED! Winter travelers in the Pacific Northwest must carry an emergency kit, extra food and clothing, and tire chains they they know how to use. They must also realize that "winter" starts earlier and ends later than it might appear. The Kims were stranded in November; I have been stuck in snow in Oregon in April. Here is an excellent website that discusses emergency travel preparations in light of the Kim tragedy.

Remind travelers of the danger of "Get-There-Itis." More than any other factor, I believe that the Kims' urge to reach a hotel where They had made a reservation overrode their judgment and common sense on the fateful day they were lost in the wildernes. "Get-There-Itis" is an insidious hazard. It appears in many forms, causing a variety of potentially fatal errors, including speeding, tailgating, driving while tired, and, in the Kims' case, taking risks in the wilderness. I think it's highly unfortunate that, in a rush to cannonize a grieving widow and her husband, and blame people and factors that were tangential and often irrelevant, this clearest of lessons was never mentioned by any media outlet in the wake of the Kims ordeal.

Educate travelers about Northwest realities. In the public mind, this region is a rainy place with little danger to speak of. The reality is different. The Pacific Northwest has the highest mountain snowfalls in the United States. We have fierce storms, dense fog, flash floods, sudden landslides, and rugged topography. And, once you leave the Puget Sound and Portland metro areas, you'll find the Northwest to be as remote as anywhere outside of Alaska. Help won't necessarily be on the way.

In particular, some of the ecology-minded residents of Portland, Seattle and San Francisco have lulled themselves into complacency about the potential hazards of wilderness travel. If they and other urban residents were more informed about realities of wilderness areas, I think future Kim families would be more likely to heed warnings and carry emergency supplies before heading into the wilderness, even for quick trips.

Remind travelers to keep their wits about them. Convenience can breed complacency. Modern technology provides less protection than you might imagine. You must pay attention to warnings and to common sense issues like trip planning, fatigue, weather, emergency supplies, fuel levels, the mechanical condition of the vehicle and the like. James and Kati Kim should have been poster figures for such a campaign, having disregarded a diverse array of warnings and environmental cues in their haste to reach their night’s destination.

SAR management changes. Ironically, the nearly chaotic state of SAR management in southwest Oregon had only a minor impact on the Kim search. However, the flaws uncovered by the Oregon State Sheriff’s Association were serious and needed to be addressed. In particular, the state’s coordination role should be enhanced, and sheriffs of counties containing wilderness areas should do considerably more to plan for emergencies. I note, however, that budgets are declining. Therefore, while SAR changes are desirable, I think public education is likely the most effective means of preventing tragedies similar to those that befell the Kims.

Ideas - Indirect

Map change. While I disagree with those who think that the 2006 Oregon highway map was responsible for the Kims’ imprudent foray onto Bear Camp Road, I do think there was merit to the view that remote roads were depicted in a way that might be too reassuring to drivers unfamiliar with their realities.

Rather than label such routes in thick black ink, I suggest a lighter shade and/or a thinner line to designate such roads. (NOTE: In 2007, the ODOT map was changed to render seasonal roads in a dotted line, with the legend advising drivers to check conditions locally.) However, I quite strongly reject the idea of omitting such roads altogether. That approach is too paternalistic for my taste; it smacks of the notion that “what they don’t know won’t hurt them.” A map should give accurate information, not withhold it. Directional signs on Bear Camp Road. Interviews with Kati Kim make it clear that she and her husband were not misled by the directional signs at the intersection of Bear Camp and the logging road. But reporting of the tragedy has highlighted local confusion over the signage there, and it should be made clearer.

Gate redesign. I am one Americans who strongly believes that the federal government merely manages, rather than owns, public lands. Therefore, I oppose closing the logging road that the Kims chose on Nov. 25. At the same time, I think gates can be redesigned to make it more difficult to pass, yet still possible for those determined to do so. A permanent half-gate design would be one possible approach.

Warning signs. While I believe it borders on the absurd to suggest that drivers will disobey “winter” road warnings prior to Dec. 21, I think there is merit to strengthening the impact of warnings against casual use of the Rogue’s back country roads. One approach would be to set up low-power AM radio transmitters at the eastern and western edges of Bear Camp Road, with short messages outlining the hazards of bad-weather travel in the area. Another would to erect signs at eastern and western approaches stating, “Hazardous Roads Ahead: Route to Coast May Be Blocked.”

Internet tips. I’ve seen suggestions that SAR operations be more accessible to tips delivered via the Internet. I remind readers that the Kim tragedy was caused by the age-old basic human failures of haste, carelessness, and inattention, driven by what I've called "get-There-Itis." I caution against regarding the Internet, or any other technology-based approach, as a panacea. As with phone tips, Internet tips need careful screening to avoid information overload and well-intentioned meddling by overenthusiastic members of the public.

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