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Lifeguards struggle to keep up as crowds hit beach during hot October

Looking north from Balboa Pier, hundreds crowd the coastline in Newport Beach in August.

Looking north from Balboa Pier, hundreds crowd the coastline in Newport Beach in August.

(Kevin Chang / Daily Pilot)

Along the Southern California coast, October has presented a trifecta of hotter-than-normal weather, warm ocean water and massive weekend crowds, prompting lifeguards to call back seasonal staff to help patrol the beaches.

While avid beachgoers are pleased to soak up the summer-style rays, Newport Beach lifeguard Capt. Rob Williams, who has a full-time staff of about 15, has been calling back seasonal guards to pick up extra shifts.

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The majority of the 200 lifeguards Newport Beach employs each year are seasonal, meaning they typically work from mid-June through Labor Day. But this year has been different.

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“It’s been unusually busy for the fall,” Williams told Times Community News.

Fall weekends in Orange County often have temperatures in the 70s, but several weekends this September and October have seen the mercury rise near or above 90 degrees. In response, locals and visitors have flocked to the coast to beat the heat, overwhelming the couple of dozen lifeguards who patrol the beaches in the typically cooler season.

Newport Beach lifeguards staff weekends based on expected crowds, and the number of guards can vary day to day. The city uses an automated system to notify seasonal lifeguards when there are shifts available.

Williams said challenges can arise when lifeguards who have gone back to school or have another job in the offseason aren’t available to help. But he said he’s been fortunate to find enough seasonal staff to make up the difference.

Ocean water that typically dips below 60 degrees this time of year has been in the mid-70s lately, meaning more people are venturing out farther and deeper. That means lifeguards have to be on alert for people who aren’t used to rip currents and other dangerous ocean conditions, officials said.

“We don’t have the ability to open every single tower this time of year, but we staff appropriately for the conditions,” Williams said. “We place guards strategically and take the conditions at various places into consideration.”

The city’s annual spending plan for lifeguards, which includes staff pay, has been around $4 million the past few years, according to city documents. Williams said he doesn’t think a few weekends of extra staffing will eat up much of the budget.

“There’s a flexibility,” he said. “We’re bound to a budget, but we’re also bound to protecting visitors and keeping our beaches safe.”

Fry writes for Times Community News.

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