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Recreation | westwood hills park

Napa woman breaks foot at Westwood Hills Park and files claim against city

Bertha Rivera was hiking Napa’s Westwood Hills Park on the last day of September, on the main trail she’s walked regularly for years. But as she descended down from the top of the park’s ridge, the small rocks beneath her began to shift. Rivera tried to balance, but instead she slipped, fell and broke her ankle and foot in four places.

“The rocks started to move under me and I just tried to catch myself with my other foot on the other side,” Rivera said. “A few years ago I slipped on the same spot, but I just fell on my butt. This time, my foot kind of bent sideways.”

Other hikers saw Rivera fall and several of them helped carry her out of the park, she said. By the time Rivera reached the end of the trail, her mom had arrived. she took Rivera to the Providence Queen of the Valley Medical Center for treatment.

“I feel very fortunate there were people around,” Rivera said. “They were very helpful. I didn’t want to have to call 911.”

Rivera said she underwent surgery on Oct. 7, a week after her injury. She’s currently recovering at home, in bed, and expects to not be able to return to her physically active job at a wine tasting hall for the next few months, she said.

Rivera, 38 and a single mother, added that she’s thankful her mom is around to support her and drive her kids to school.  

Otherwise, she said, she wouldn’t know what to do.   

The cost of the injury has also come as a shock, Rivera said. Though her health insurance paid for some of her care, she said, she’s personally paid about $2,200 as a result of her injury so far, and the bills keep coming. Rivera even filed an injury claim against the city of Napa this week to potentially recoup some of the cost.

Rivera wants to warn people about the potential dangers of hiking in the park, and how quickly an injury can upend one’s life, she said.

“I’ve been going there for years and I never expected this to happen,” Rivera said. “I take the easy route; I don’t take the riskier paths you can go. I take the straight-up-and-down main path because I don’t want to get hurt. I’ve been doing it for years and I’ve never expected it to become something so life-changing.”

Ruth Glenn, Rivera’s sister, said the city of Napa should look into ways to cut down the chance of people falling while descending from the top of the park.

City of Napa officials say, however, that the Westwood Hills Park is safe despite the occasional injury. The 106-acre park first opened in 1976 and features 16 trails, according to a 2019 Register article. The city manages the park in partnership with the Napa Open Space District and The Friends of Westwood Hills.

In the 2019 article, the city’s then-Parks and Urban Forestry Manager David Perazzo said the park is meant to cater to people who want a natural hiking experience.  

Because the park contains moderately rough, hilly terrain — particularly in places off the main trail — emergency responses to injuries in the park have needed to be carried out rarely by the city of Napa Fire Department over the years, sometimes under similar circumstances as Rivera’s injury.

Indeed, the city of Napa Fire Department has even trained firefighters and paramedics how to carry out low-angle rescues — essentially how to rescue people who fall down ravines — in the park, according to a previous Register report from 2018.

Ty Becerra, administrative battalion chief of the Napa Fire Department, said in the 2018 article the city has carried out numerous low-angle rescues in the park over the years — once in 2018 by using a rope system to rescue a hiker who’d fallen into a ravine and, in 2016, by rescuing a teenage girl who’d rolled 100 feet into one of the park’s gullies, according to the previous report.

In the last three years, there have been four traumatic injuries — all reported as ankle injuries — that prompted a 911 response in Westwood Hills Park, according to Becerra.

Two of those injuries took place within three days of each other in August 2019; the third happened in Oct. 2020; another took place in May this year. (Rivera, because she was lifted out of the park by other hikers, never called 911, and wasn’t included in the list.)

Zoe Rodriguez was on a 50th birthday trip to Napa from New York in August 2019, and had to be airlifted to the hospital after an injury — fracturing her fibula and tearing a ligament — in the park.

Rodriguez said she — like Rivera — slipped as she began descending from the top of the park, down a rocky slope.

A friend who was with her also slipped at the same time, but fell backward and wasn’t seriously injured, Rodriguez said.

“The rocks and the ground were very dry and slippery,” Rodriguez said. “It wasn’t great conditions. And I know that sounds lame because it’s not like people are falling down every day, but on our particular day two of us fell at exactly the same time coming down those rocks.”

Rodriguez said she’s an experienced hiker, and she understands there’s a balance between keeping the park natural — as it was designed to be — and enacting safety measures. And, she added, the Napa Fire Department staff who rescued her did a wonderful job.

But, she said, if people have tended to slip on the rocky downward slopes near the top of the park, the city should look into making those areas safer. She suggested a switchback might be possible. Glenn, Rivera’s sister, suggested installing a rail to hang on to, or putting in bigger or better rocks to increase traction.

Rodriguez also incurred costs as a result of her injury. Her insurance covered most of the financial cost: she spent several hundred dollars on immediate medical care, she said, and didn’t have to pay for the airlift. But she was also wasn’t able to work — as a doctor — for two weeks.

And, two years later, the injury still sometimes causes problems, Rodriguez said. Sometimes her ankle tightens, and she has to stretch it out before she can walk around easily. On a trip to Palm Springs in April, she found herself unable to start hiking a relatively flat trail because the rocky and dry trailhead reminded her of her injury, she said.

“I had a little PTSD,” Rodriguez said. “I was like, nope, I’m not going to do it, can’t do it, can’t deal, I don’t care how many plates and screws I have.”

In a 2019 Register article, Rodriguez called for more signs and maintenance along the trails of the Westwood Hills Park. At the time, the city was reportedly in the process of naming the trails and making signs to identify those trails, according to the article.  

But no changes to add signs or trail markers in the park appear to have been made so far.  City of Napa Parks and Recreation Director Vin Smith said in an email that department staff has been coordinating with the Napa Parks and Recreation Foundation to install a permanent trail map located at the main entrance of the park. But, he added, no definitive timeline for that project has yet come together.  

Smith also said there was a sign at the front of the park advising hikers that, essentially, they’re hiking at their own risk. But this reporter didn’t see any such sign when he visited the park.

One sign does refer to park use regulations in Napa Municipal Code section 12.36, but no portion of that code refers to the possible dangers of hiking in parks.

Another sign warns hikers that mountain lion tracks have been recently identified in the park. There were 19 mountain lion attacks across California from 1986 to 2021 — three fatal — and none occurred in Napa, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife website.

Under the watchful eye of Moana the llama, goats and sheep clear fire fuel on Calistoga's Mount Washington.

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