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Death Valley Park Rangers Don’t Mess With the Heat

Unlike lots of tourists, they know better.

A melting 'open' sign.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Driving through Death Valley National Park, tourists pass three different extreme heat warnings. Beyond the standard brown “caution” signs and the ones prohibiting hiking after 10 a.m., visitors encounter a more makeshift one warning that helicopters and other rescue options might not be available when the temperature is above 115 Fahrenheit — when it gets that hot, the air is simply too thin to support a chopper.

It’s the last sign that seems to catch people’s attention the most, park ranger Abby Wines told me.

On the 111th anniversary of the world record for highest temperature ever recorded — 134 mind-boggling degrees — news outlets have been reporting on the tourists flocking to experience the hottest place on Earth. At the same time, meteorologists have also warned that Death Valley could come close to matching that record, with temperatures up to 129 degrees. According to Wines, the number of tourists this summer is a return to the park’s pre-pandemic numbers: Over 150,000 visited the park in May 2019; this year, that number was around 140,000.

While Death Valley is busy year-round, tensions run higher for park workers during the summer when extreme temperatures limit much of their work. And, for the 100 National Park Service employees working there in the summer, taking care of tourists is not always their top priority. “We will rescue who we can,” Wines said, “as long as we can do it safely without losing a coworker.”

“We have 100 people and we’re running an entire community,” she explained. “All the structure that a small town would have, providing all the emergency services, maintaining the roads, maintaining the buildings, and the park is the size of Connecticut.”

The park’s weather, on the other hand, is not at all like Connecticut’s. And climate change is making it worse. Death Valley is currently tied for the fourth longest streak of consecutive days above 125 degrees, with more days to come. Overnight lows also seem to be getting warmer, consistently hitting the high 90s. A couple of years ago, Wines remembers an overnight low of 106. “And that overnight low is not at midnight — it’s right before the sunrise,” she said.

Always, but especially during the summer, any work in the park is extremely dangerous. Beyond routine tasks — for example, keeping toilets at the trailheads clean — park workers also need to monitor the park’s 60-year-old infrastructure. “When a water main breaks in the middle of the summer, we have to fix that, because that’s what we need to survive here is drinking water,” Wines told me, “so that’s where we really put our staff at the most risk of working in heat.”

Park employees carry a work/rest schedule which lays out how many minutes they should work before resting according to different temperature ranges. When temperatures are above 115 degrees, they are only allowed to do moderate work for 10 minutes, before cooling down in an air-conditioned space for an hour. When working on the trails, vehicles must be idling the whole time so that there’s immediate AC for workers to come back to.

In September 2013, one of Wines’ colleagues died after getting a flat tire while repairing a road in the park, Wines told me. The park largely lacks cell phone service, so it took staff until evening to find the missing ranger. The high that day was 107 degrees, not even close to how hot the park can get in the summer, she said.

I asked Wines about how she and her fellow rangers deal with the stress associated with their jobs on a daily basis. She paused for a long second.

“I say we’re used to it,” she replied. “But I would also say that honestly, there’s always a tension between work that needs to happen and keeping people safe.” While people might try to push themselves to get a job done, Wines said the most important thing is trying to not become inured to just how deadly heat can be. That is the same advice Wines tries to convey to tourists.

On Saturday, a group of six German tourists motorcycling through the park needed assistance in the extreme heat. According to Wines, four of them required immediate help, but with the thermometer at 128 degrees, no helicopters could fly in. Because the park only has two ambulances available, the rangers had to call in help from Pahrump and Shoshone, each over 60 miles away. One of the riders died and another was hospitalized.

“Being a local to Las Vegas for 26 years and an avid outdoors enthusiast, I think it is foolish to visit Death Valley during the peak temperatures of the day,” Brian Delaney told me. Delaney is one of the owners of Mojave Wave, a small tourism company in Las Vegas that offers tours to Death Valley. To keep employees and passengers safe, they leave either early in the day or after dark. “We are a very small operation, and the two of us who take groups on tours to Death Valley are very prepared for the worst. We focus on maintaining our equipment, not taking chances and keeping a keen eye on our guests as well as others in the park.”

Yet, in Delaney’s experience, many tourists still prefer to take their chances to experience peak temperatures. “Many of the visitors are self-drivers and do not enlist our professional services,” he told me.

While educating tourists is never easy — and can add an extra strain to already overwhelmed workers — Wines told me closing the park during the summer is not an option. Of the 57 entrances to the park, 55 are unpaved roads. That means that visitors could easily drive around any type of blockage. A closed park would also mean fewer employees, which would make it even more difficult for rescue crews to be deployed. “We’d always be creating a less safe environment for those people that would violate the closure,” she said.

Julia Vaz profile image

Julia Vaz

Julia is an intern at Heatmap and a senior at Brown University, where she studies political science and media. She is also the managing editor of the newsroom at The Brown Daily Herald.

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