UPDATED: This article was updated at 12:56 p.m., July 26 to include new information from the Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office.
The July 18 death of Tara L. Holyk, a 37-year-old Vancouver woman who fell nearly 40 feet from an unofficial trail inside Lacamas Park, highlights the ongoing safety hazards near the popular Camas “potholes” area.
Camas-Washougal Fire Department (CWFD) Captain-Paramedic Kevin West responded with one other CWFD firefighter to reports of a fallen hiker at 7 p.m., Wednesday, July 18.
The initial part of the rescue proved “extremely difficult” since the topography at Lacamas Park often complicates pinpointing exact locations.
“We do not always have a good starting location,” West explained, saying Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency (CRESA) used GPS to put rescuers within 30 meters of where the woman had fallen.
“She wasn’t at the potholes, but about 200 yards downstream of the potholes,” West added, referring to the small 3- to 13-foot-deep natural pools of water that lie in rock formations below Lacamas Creek. Ringed by cliffs, the area is a popular “jumping off” spot for swimmers and can be accessed from the 1.2-mile trail network that circles Round Lake.
West said Holyk was walking with a male companion on a “fairly steep trail” with a “very steep 35- to 40-foot drop.”
The CWFD captain added that Holyk’s companion somehow managed to get down to where she had fallen and was performing CPR when rescuers made their way to their location.
“It was horrible when we got there. He was yelling at us to help, but there was no safe way to get down to her,” West said, adding that rescuers had to walk down to a safer spot and backtrack “at least 200 yards” to reach the victim.
When CWFD firefighters made it to the spot where the victim had landed, Holyk was already deceased, West said.
The operation then moved into recovery mode, and first responders shifted away from a fast-paced rescue operation. For the next couple hours, crews worked to recover the Holyk’s body and decided the safest course of removal was via water on an inflatable craft. Four recovery workers accompanied her body downstream, meeting the medical examiner at the Steel Bridge around 10:30 p.m., July 18.
The Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office later deemed Holyk’s death an accident, and said she died from “multiple blunt force injuries.”
Crews from Clark County Fire District 6, Vancouver Fire Department and East County Fire and Rescue assisted.
West said he has responded to other fatalities and severe injuries at this area, and cautioned the public that the “potholes” region poses great risk of injury and death.
The trail Holyk was walking on Wednesday, for instance, looks like a regular trail, but can be very slippery, especially when conditions are wet, West said.
“We need more education at the high school level and for the community,” West said.
Firefighters and paramedics are always primed for incidents in this area, West added.
“It’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when,'” he said, of injuries and fatalities occurring at and near that region of Lacamas Park. “I can’t stress enough the need for public awareness for not leaving the main trails.”
Bill Bjerke, the county’s parks and lands division manager, said he is well aware of the dangers and injuries at Lacamas Park, but cautions that there may be no easy solution.
“We have put signs up, but they keep getting pulled down,” Bjerke said, adding the county doesn’t manage the potholes area, much of which is on Georgia-Pacific land, but that he would speak to Georgia-Pacific and city of Camas representatives to see if there might be signage that could warn hikers about the unofficial trail dangers and the safety risks posed by the potholes’ low water levels.
The county does have a group of volunteers who look for unofficial trails, and Bjerke said county workers try to prevent those trails from popping up in parks like Lacamas Park, but that many park visitors cut trails faster than county workers or volunteers can spot them.
“There are always inherent risks in these types of areas,” Bjerke said. “But I’ll see what we can do … some sort of advisory notification, maybe.”