The higher than normal rainfall season that we had this past winter has officially removed us from being in a drought situation; however, it has also created a dangerous situation on our rivers. There have been several rescue incidents on the river this year and the summer has just begun. With temperatures over 100 degrees for a number of days in the forecast there may be more people heading out to cool off in the river. The dangers are real in the river with swift currents, high water levels, and cold water; officials warn that things can take a deadly turn in seconds.
Just this past week, on June 14 there was a body recovered by Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District (SCFPD) boat 29 on the east side of the Knights Ferry covered bridge around 9:45 a.m. The Coroner’s office is in the process of making a positive identification; the body was believed to be that of an area resident who was swept away while swimming in the river in late May.
SCFPD Water Rescue Captain Paul Autry along with Captain Zach Gardner established the Water Rescue Team in 2009. Autry began his career as an intern for the department in late 2003 and then was hired full time as an engineer in February 2006.
“In the past there had been a few attempts at establishing a water rescue team but they never really succeeded,” stated Autry. “I think there wasn’t such a need for it as it is now and they didn’t have the support for it.”
Growing up on water with lakes and boats, Autry was the perfect fit to take the lead on establishing the program.
“So we teamed up (Gardner and Autry) and started gathering old equipment that we had and scrounging up whatever we could find and whatever we could get together to get some guys out on the water to start some training,” explained Autry. “So the water rescues started going smoother and our fire chief at the time started realizing that there was a need for it and that we were going to be serious about the program so we started getting support from the district financially to start purchasing a little bit of equipment here and there.
“We got more equipment and more boats and from there we just took off.”
A few years ago Gardner and Autry checked into the particulars of becoming an OES (Office of Emergency Services) team, which took two more years of additional training and equipment. In March of 2016 they completed all the necessary requirements and became the 12th team in California. They have the ability if the opportunity arises to give mutual aid throughout the state or to other agencies that may need assistance or even around the world if needed.
There are approximately 40 people on the team which has different requirements now that they are an OES team, with several other hopefuls on the waiting list.
The busy season for the water rescue team is typically from May until October due to the recreational activities people engage in on the river. Currently the river is running at about 3,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) which compares to last year at this time when the river was at 225 cubic feet per second. Autry explained that the levels are about 15 times high than they were last year. The water temperature is about 50 degrees and does not fluctuate much regardless of the time of the year. The flow is at about 10 to 12 miles an hour and as an example Autry explained that at three miles an hour if a person was to be stuck alongside the bank in the bushes or a boulder there would be 180 pounds of pressure from the water on you.
All those things make the river dangerous for swimmers and rafters even if you have a life jacket, he said. The recommendation from Autry is to not swim or raft down the river. He suggests going to the lake or a pool somewhere other than the river. However if you are going to float down the river wear a life jacket and carry a cell phone in a water proof bag to call 911 if trouble arises. Also he suggests having a float plan by letting a family member or friend know where you are going to start and stop on the river. If you do happen to find yourself in trouble in the river Autry stated to flow down the river with your feet out in front of you like you were sitting in a lounge chair; that way you can push off boulders and better protect yourself from objects.
The local surface water rescue team has already had about 40 incidents this year.