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State, county considering changes to access and service to Kalalau

By Lara Yamada
Published On: Apr 29 2013 03:52:00 PM HST

Kauai's Kalalau Trail is famous for its stunning views and gorgeous waterfalls. But, it's also becoming infamous for slippery trail and flash floods putting unsuspecting hikers in dangerous, and at time, deadly predicaments.

HANALEI, Hawaii -

"We've had people come to the fire station with photos of somebody crossing the stream and falling in and dying," said Capt Sam Lee of the Kauai Fire Department.  "It's horrible.  It's so unnecessary."

It is the stunning beauty of Kalalau Valley, with the trail rimming Kauai's Na Pali Coast enticing tourists ready, or not.

Our guides were Lee and firefighters Dane Smith, Gavin Kennelly and Bryan Doo.  They're all well-trained in the challenges of the trail.

"We're just trying to tell people when you walk in on the trail, you're walking into the middle of nowhere," said Lee.

This is fair warning with rescue crews now coming in up to three times a week.

The river can be deceiving.  But, if you take a look at the water line, that's how high it can get all within an hour.

"It was pretty intense," said hiker Eric Wolfbrandt.

On Feb. 21, Wolfbrandt and his wife Myrna were two of 55 people caught on the Hanakapiai Trail when the waters began to rise.

"It was still not raining till we got about a half-mile in," said Wolfbrandt.

A photo was taken with 43-year-old Norka Villacorta in the background.  Not long after the picture was taken, there was a downpour.

That cross-able stream was now a raging river.

"I was literally about six feet from her when she let go of the rope," said Wolfbrandt.

Villacorta was swept away to her death.

"We could see the look in her eyes of desperation and wanting help.  I think that was one of the toughest parts," said Wolfbrandt.

Hiker and Seattle firefighter Joaquin Hubbard shot stunning video of rescue crews plucking dozens of other out of danger that night.

"There was young children, there was a pregnant lady, there were people stranded in the back of the valley. This isn't an isolated thing.  This is becoming more and more frequent," said Lee.

"They're passionate.  They're passionate about what they do," said Deputy Chief John Blalock of the Kauai Fire Department.

Blalock says because of the increased calls, for the first time, firefighters are getting swift water training.  Rescue tubes are up and they're formulating more ways to handle the masses.

"We really want the visitors to come, but to really be safe, enjoy it and go home," said Blalock.

About halfway into the Hanakapiai Trail, you can see the bluff just drops off really sharply.  In recent years, they've been opening up little landings where helicopters can come in and rescue people who are hurt and need help and get them out of here as quickly as possible.

Capt. Lee is hoping for the return of a guide posted at the trail head -- a position axed a few years ago.  Not long after, Lee says the calls started to climb.

"When we came out here it was rainy, it was sunny, it was rainy, it was sunny.  And that was from the car to the beginning of the trail," said a visitor.

"It's like Disneyland -- with no one to tell you not to do things," said Lee.

Right now, the county and the state are revamping master plans for the area.  On the table: manning the trail head once again, limiting the number of visitors and cars on any given day, even writing letters to guidebook authors asking that ocean and hiking conditions and tips be included in their write-ups.

"All it really takes sometimes is somebody to warn somebody, hey, just be careful and maybe we can save somebody," said Lee.

It's already been a heartbreaking year for the island.  Despite monumental efforts in ocean safety, 11 people have drowned in less than four months.

But, for the first time, safety videos are up at Lihue Airport, brochures are everywhere and those in the tourism industry are getting extra training.

Officials are also hoping to have that master plan for the entire area finalized sometime this summer.

Kauai Emergency and Visitor Resources:

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