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'Watch out behind you' | Lifeguards warn beachgoers about cliff collapse danger

CBS 8 is working for you and passing along this life saving message as summer approaches.

Summer in San Diego will be here before you know it and that means your family will most likely be heading to the beach. Lifeguards are warning the public one of the biggest dangers at the beach isn't the water, but the cliffs behind you. 

CBS 8 reporters are always Working For You and in this Zevely Zone, I pass along a lifesaving message from Moonlight Beach. 

The California Surf Lifesaving Association is a non-profit organization chartered to promote beach safety awareness. I attended one of the largest lifeguard training events in Southern California where cliff collapses are a top concern.

Credit: CBS 8

Sergeant Nick Scoggins from the Encinitas Fire and Marine Department has seen cliffs that haven't budged in years suddenly fall. Daily, Sergeant Scoggins and his fellow lifeguards see families sitting too close to the cliffs. "We see it quite often, if not almost an everyday occurrence," said Sergeant Scoggins. "It can happen extremely quickly, like I said it is unpredictable and it can happen in less than a second."

Credit: CBS 8

Families arriving at the beach should pick a safe spot. Lifeguards say every cliff is dangerous but when you see what they call and 'undercut' or 'overhang' that is not a safe place for families to sit. 

Where to sunbathe gets even trickier during a high tide when there is not a lot of sand to sit on. Lifeguards say the general rule of thumb is look at the height of the cliff, envision a third of it, then stay at least that distance away from the cliff.

Lifeguards are desperate to share this information with beachgoers. We met a mother, father and their 2-year-old daughter sitting too close to cliffs. I approached them and said, "We are doing a public safety story. Where you are sitting right now, do you think that you are safe?" Jennifer Zuniga and Feliciano Garcia told me, "Not entirely. I recall, it was like two years ago, there was a report, it was down there, right? A cliff did fall on somebody."

Credit: CBS 8

In 2019, a deadly cliff collapse killed three family members enjoying a day at the beach at Grandview Beach in Encinitas. Jennifer and Feliciano say this is the first time they've heard about a safe sunbathing distance being one third of the height of the cliff behind them. "I've been coming to this beach since I was a kid, when I was five years old, so yeah my first-time hearing about that," said Jennifer. In the future, they will sit farther away from the cliffs. "Yeah, for sure," said Jennifer.

Credit: CBS 8

Just down the beach, we found another family sitting on purpose next to a large retaining wall instead of the cliffs.  "Yeah, I am a marine biologist, so it's my background," said Heather Turner. "I love my children and I want to keep them safe."

Encinitas spent months preparing one of the largest lifeguard training sessions in Southern California. "We have LA County Lifeguards, Newport Beach Fire and Lifeguards, Huntington Beach, Coronado, San Diego and others," said Sergeant Scoggins. Ten agencies in all preparing to respond to a cliff collapse. Lifeguards asked me to play a victim in their drill. "We got pain in the back," one lifeguard said as they loaded me onto a gurney. "Three, two one go," the lifeguards said in unison as I was loaded onto a lifeguard truck. With LifeFlight in bound, they train as if every second counts; knowing that sometime soon it will.

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"Jeff we are going to load you on to our gurney, I want you to keep your eyes closed until we get you inside, okay?" said first responder from Reach Air Medical Services.

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Together, lifeguards and CBS 8 hope this story can save lives and help San Diegans stay safe at the beach.  

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