Hikers in Hawaii going off beaten path could soon pay for their own rescue

National

HONOLULU (KHON) — Hikers in Hawaii disregarding warning signs could be required to pay for the cost of a search and rescue if they get lost.

Bill SB700 is moving through the Hawaii Senate and would require government agencies, like fire and police, to seek full or partial reimbursement for the search and rescue cost if a person deliberately disobeys warning and no trespassing signs.

Several lawmakers say they’re seeing an uptick in visitor rescues.

“The bill is important because it’s really wasting taxpayer money,” Senator Mike Gabbard explained to NewsNation affiliate KHON. “People who are shirking their responsibilities should be held accountable.”

Senator J Kalani English says a rescue can cost around $10,000 and more people have stopped following warning signs.

On Thursday, a female visitor died in his district of Hana after a flash flood swept her and others out to sea at Waioka, an area where several rescues have occurred in the past.

“She was explicitly warned as she was walking down. She was told by the people there that there’s a flash flood coming, do not go in the water, and she said, ‘nah, I can do this,’ and then went in and she lost her life,” Senator English said.

“The cost of that rescue was enormous. I’m so sorry for the loss of her life, but she didn’t listen to the warning and now the people of Maui County, the people of the State of Hawaii, have to pick up the huge tab for her rescue to find her body,” he continued.

Waioka is private land and many people trespass daily.

The bill states that government agencies should seek reimbursement “if the need for search or rescue was caused by an act or omission by the person searched for or rescued, constituting intentional disregard for the person’s safety, including, but not limited to, intentionally disregarding a warning or notice.”

If the person leaves a hiking trail and “enters state, county, or private property that is closed to the public and marked with a sign giving notice of a closure”, the bill says, or if a hiker enters a trail that is closed to the public with a sign giving notice, they would foot the cost if they needed to be rescued.

The group Hana Highway Regulation says there are 15 main tourist stops on the Road to Hana, most of which are on private property.

“About eight of them are private property that don’t necessarily have signage or personnel to help educate the visitors on the specifics of the property,” explained Hana Highway Regulation member Napua Hueu.

Bamboo Forest and Kaihalulu are two of the spots along Hana Highway that draw in thousands of visitors every year. Both are on private land, and both sites have a high number of rescues.

Hueu believes the state, tourism leaders and the community should work together and educate visitors to prevent rescues from happening in the first place.

“A large amount of these rescues that happen end up with life changing injuries for these victims, or death. So, how are we going to recoup the funds that we spent as a state on the emergency rescue if these people don’t come back alive at all?” she pointed out.

She says her group has done exercises and educated visitors at several of the illegal stops along the Road to Hana.

“It proved 96% effective to diminish the probability of people going past the ‘no trespassing’ sign as long as there’s personnel there,” she said.

“It has to be a collaboration between private property owners, the State of Hawaii and the Hawaii Tourism Authority to create an initiative where the community can stand guard at these locations and help educate visitors and help discourage them from making decisions that could end up in an emergency rescue scenario,” Hueu added.

Hiking experts worry people might not call for help if they know they have to pay for it.

“If you charge someone for rescue, they might hesitate before calling, or they might not call it all, and this could really put them in serious danger,” explained Barbara Bruno, who works with the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club.

“It doesn’t seem reasonable to single out hikers. I mean, what about swimmers if they ignore signs about high surf or dangerous currents?” she said.

In 2020, Honolulu Fire Department responded to nearly as many water rescues as land search and rescues.

According to HFD, there were 48 ‘search for person on land’ rescues, and 181 high angle rescues in 2020.

HFD also had 71 search for person in water, 62 recreational swimming rescues, five swift rescues, 40 surf rescues, and 45 watercraft rescues.

Senators English and Gabbard believe if someone needs help, they will call 911.

“It’s really sad that we’ve come to this, but people no longer heed warnings. They think they know better. They listen to somebody on Facebook or Instagram, and they’ll try to get that picture to post and lose their life over it. It’s not worth it,” Senator English said.

The bill will be heard on Wednesday by the Judiciary Committee.

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