Avoid the rivers.
That’s the simple message from Escalon Fire Chief Rick Mello and many of his colleagues in the fire and rescue service, as water levels are extremely high, water temperatures are extremely cold and the current is flowing faster than most people expect.
“It is crazy out there,” Mello said on Tuesday, noting a large rescue operation by members of the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District crews over the weekend on the Stanislaus River along Orange Blossom. Escalon crews also had to pluck a couple of people out of the river, clinging on to trees, at the McHenry Recreation Area on Saturday evening, May 20.
The higher than normal rain in the Valley this winter, along with the major snowfall in the Sierras, has created the ‘perfect storm’ for dangerous, and potentially deadly, river conditions.
“Just at McHenry Park, one parking lot is already closed because of water,” Mello said of the river level being much higher than normal. “At the second parking lot, the beach is all under water.”
Mello said fire departments around the region have been busy with multiple water rescues already, including the weekend effort by Stanislaus Consolidated that saw several rafters pulled out of the water.
Crews returned to the Knights Ferry area at presstime on Tuesday to a report of more people stranded or lost on the river.
“The rivers are so fast, so cold,” Mello warned. “People are finding that, if the current doesn’t get them, the cold does.”
The underlying current can quickly sweep people away and the water temperatures can lead to hypothermia setting in very rapidly.
“Just stay out of the river,” Mello emphasized. “They are talking about these kinds of flows until August. They are talking about the ski resorts being open until July 4.”
And while the thought of taking a quick dip in the river sounds enticing as the temperatures heat up, officials warn that at this point, it is just too risky.
“The message is stay off the river. Find a community pool, find a friend with a pool,” Mello said.
He added that, typically, those people that end up in trouble have gone onto the river in large groups, using floating devices or rafts that are more suited to lounging around a pool than trying to float down a fast flowing river.
“They usually end up somewhere between Oakdale and Ripon, and everyone is out there looking for them,” Mello said. “It’s just better to stay off the river and that will be our message, especially with this big holiday weekend coming up.”
Meanwhile, the Escalon Fire Department will officially kick off its seasonal program this weekend as well, expanding their personnel for the busy summer and approaching fire season.
“We start hiring back our reserves as a third paid firefighter on each shift,” Mello explained. “We will have three people on duty on each shift, at a minimum, probably through October, starting this weekend.”