Giant waves and fencing trap campers at Oceano Dunes, video

January 4, 2024


As giant waves pounded the coast on Dec. 28, metal fencing trapped dozens of campers at the Oceano Dunes. One woman, who was smashed between a vehicle and the fencing, sustained bruising over much of her body. A man and a boy were swept under two different vehicles. People were terrified.

For more than 40 years, Raymond Scott of Oakdale has vacationed with his family at the dunes. He knows to keep track of the high tides and weather conditions.

On Christmas Eve, a California State Parks ranger warned that the high tide on Christmas Day would be the largest surf during Scott’s stay and that he should remain as far from the surf as possible. Camping with a group of friends, Scott made sure they were at the highest spots available.

On Christmas, waves during high tide came within 80 yards of their campsites.

Scott woke early on the morning of Dec. 28, grabbed a cup of coffee, went outside his RV and gathered with a group of men on the dunes to watch the ocean.

At about 7:15 a.m., two and a half hours before high tide, Scott watched as a giant rogue wave hit their campsites, with part of the wave cresting on his RV. His RV tipped over on his truck and another RV fell on its side.

As Scott ran to rescue his wife and three daughters, the wave knocked him off his feet and shoved him under a trailer. Scott got to the front door of his RV, but it was too damaged to open. He then went in the back door and helped his family out.

The remaining men ran to rescue their family members, some of whom were trapped in their RVs, but all five men were knocked off their feet.

Heather MacDonald was camping in the same area when the rogue wave tossed her RV off its jacks. She tried to get outside, but the door was damaged. Her husband then forced the door open and helped her escape.

For maybe 10 minutes, the waves receded and the group attempted to rescue people and remove vehicles. But then, the waves began hitting one after another. The first wave righted both of the toppled trailers which bounced back and forth with the waves.

MacDonald watched as a boy was swept under a truck, she said with her voice cracking.

“We were all in our jammies,” MacDonald said. “One kid got washed under our truck. Ray’s trailer started to fall on him, and he ran. His wife and children were still inside.”

Campers attempting to escape were trapped by 5-foot high metal fencing. A floating vehicle hit a woman standing by the fence, pinning her, Scott said.

A man with metal pliers cut a hole in the fence and campers began leading each other to safety. It would be more than an hour before rescue teams arrived.

“I was washed under a horse trailer,” Scott said. “This was 100% because of the fence. We were forced to camp lower then we had for years.”

For more than a decade, the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District (APCD) clashed with State Parks and off-road vehicle enthusiasts over the cause of particulate pollution in the air at the Nipomo Mesa. The APCD has claimed that on windy days, the pollution is almost entirely due to mineral dust particles blowing from the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, which is located more than two miles from the mesa.

State Parks entered into a stipulated order of abatement with the APCD in 2018 that requires State Parks to reduce the number of violations of the state’s particulate pollution standard on the Nipomo Mesa.

Under the APCD’s order, State Parks closed approximately 50 acres of prime camping area in 2019, forcing many visitors to park their RVs closer to the surf. This reduced the camping area by 50%.

State Parks then surrounded the closed area with fencing and planted vegetation in an effort to reduce the amount of mineral dust blowing from the dunes.

Waves washed away acres of planted vegetation

In its attempt to appease the APCD, State Parks has spent more than $25 million on dust mitigation efforts, including the 50-acre vegetation project. However, on Dec. 28, waves removed more than a third of the vegetation and damaged the fencing.

Last year, an investigation by Scripps Institution of Oceanography determined that the content of the particulate matter blowing on the Mesa contained less than 14% mineral dust from dunes. The investigation concluded that the dunes were not the cause of pollution on the Mesa and the mitigation efforts would have little to no impact.

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It is important for people to understand that much of the problems and controversy at the Oceano dunes State Park is due to poor management. Some people continue to want to bury this fact. Better management will mean better experiences for all.

That seems to be true for much of state management for our forests as well; i.e., the colliding interests of a “natural” area vs forest fire mitigation efforts. Please don’t let facts get in the way of policy decisions!

I don’t know of any other California state park that even has half the problems that the Oceano dunes State Park suffers from. Plus, park management claims they get more visitors than many national parks.