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Firefighters prepare for water rescues

Dave Moller

Despite the South Yuba River’s tranquil beauty, people who save others for a living know that it can be deadly.

That is why firefighters from Nevada City and the Nevada County Consolidated fire departments were dangling from ropes Tuesday afternoon as the river roared underneath. With the tourist season in mind, the departments were training for river rescues.

Last year three people drowned on the South Yuba, two swimmers near Bear Valley and a kayaker just above the Highway 49 bridge, according to Consolidated Chief Tim Fike. Rescuers using ropes managed to save three people near Washington.

Many people “have no idea of the forces of the river,” Fike said. “They’ll jump in a green pool in August, and they come back the next spring and have no idea how cold and swift it is.”

Kayakers usually are more river-smart than swimmers, but even they face dangers, Fike said. “It’s that submerged rock they don’t see.”

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A common rescue involves swimmers who get out to an island rock, Fike said. “They refuse to get off the rock, and that’s where this type of device can come in handy,” Fike said, pointing to a firefighter suspended in a harness attached to ropes spanning the river.

Teaching them was Consolidated rescue coordinator Mike Stewart, a renowned river rescuer for more than 20 years.

Hanging over a roaring Sierra river “is something you have to learn,” Stewart said. “Everybody’s afraid of heights to some degree. You have to trust your gear implicitly, and that’s the hardest part.”

People get into trouble on the river in a number of different ways, according to Consolidated’s battalion chief, David Ray, who has been rescuing them for 30 years.

“They get in trouble by means of falling – they slip on sand or rocks,” Ray said. “We’ve had heart attacks, and the high water brings the kayakers.”

“This year we’ve been lucky; the water’s low,” Stewart said. Last year was not so lucky with the drownings, but there were successes.

While pulling one swimmer out near Washington last summer, “a kid from Reno got his foot trapped,” Stewart said. “He was in a spot that’s killed six people that I know of.”

By the time Stewart and a rescue crew got to him, “he’d been in the water 10 minutes and he was already blue. I didn’t think we’d get him, but we did.”

” A couple of years ago at that exact spot, we had two who didn’t make it, and that was at lower water levels,” Stewart said.

The water is already low this year, about midsummer depth, Fike said. But that will not stop people from getting in trouble, or those who save them from getting ready.

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What to do if you fall in the river:

– Do not panic; get on your back and do not try to stand up.

– Keep your feet pointed downstream to keep them from getting trapped and to ward off rocks.

– Go with the current and move across it if you can to find something to hang on to.

– If you can grab a rock or branch to stop, hang on and wait for help.

Source: California Department of Boating and Waterways


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