Fire rescue crews are worried about river safety on the upcoming 4th of July weekend.
With thousands of rafters, kayakers and swimmers expected to flood Valley rivers, fire and rescue workers are concerned over how many people are still not prepared for this year’s high, fast water.
“I’ve had so many people tell me, if the raft flips over I can take care of my son or I can take care of my child,” said Sacramento Metro Fire Battalion Chief Charles Jenkins, “when you put them in 58 degree water that water takes the air out of you, you can’t breathe, panic sets in and now you’ve got to worry about yourself.”
Even as he spoke, a trio of rafters prepared to put in just a few feet away near the Sunrise walking bridge on the American River.
When Alex Strouse of Sacramento was asked if the three had life jackets, he just laughed, adding he is a good swimmer.
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On the first day of summer, standing in the sparse shade of trees lining the American River, Patrick Ellis eyed a group of rafters as they swept toward a bike/pedestrian bridge near Sunrise Boulevard.
“These guys, their rafts are tied together, they’re not wearing life preservers, not even attempting to paddle,” Ellis said Tuesday.
Ellis, a battalion chief with the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District, knew that hours before, the current had caught a similar group and smacked a raft against a pylon as they tried to pass under the bridge. Two rafters fell into the river and swam to shore. Two others clung to the pylon until a rescue boat picked them up.
Now, Ellis saw the makings of yet another water rescue – potentially the sixth on the river in 24 hours.
As he tracked their progress from shore, the two rafts disappeared for a moment under the bridge. Then they came rushing through, untouched, and resumed their drift downriver.
“They’re lucky,” Ellis said.
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The Sacramento Fire Department’s two boat patrols are set to be eliminated due to budget cuts in mid-July.
That announcement comes a day after Sacramento City, Sacramento Metro and the Folsom Fire Departments made nearly two dozen rescues on the water during “Operation River Safe”.”
In the past five days, we’ve rescued 53 people and two dogs on the American River,” said Sac Metro spokesman Dale Turner. Due to heavy winter snow, the American River is running unusually high and fast for this time of year.
Emergency crews are warning that the conditions are dangerous even for experienced swimmers. Sacramento City Fire officials confirm that the boat patrol program will be eliminated on July 16.
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High, cold water on the American River brought several more rescues Wednesday, including one group of 20 rafters who had to be rescued when their rafts foundered near Riverbend Park.
“We got hung up right in the middle between a really big current and I don’t know, but the raft popped and it flipped over,” Benjamin Gabriel of Lincoln said.
As fire rescue boats raced to pull people out, Gabriel said he was barely able to make out of the freezing, fast water.
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Sacramento Metro Firefighters on the swift water rescue team have been very busy. Firefighters said they made 28 rescues between Monday and Tuesday along the American River alone.
Because of he recent activity, Sac Metro, Sacramento City, and the Folsom Fire Department are all teaming up for “Operation River Safe”.”We are putting six boats and more than twenty trained firefighters on the American River to be in position to respond to water emergencies.
With the conditions, it’s a matter of if, not when,” said Sacramento Metro Fire’s Pat Ellis.Triple-digit heat and abnormally high water flows have combined for a very dangerous situation.
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Nearly two dozen students were the subject of a massive rescue effort on the American River after their rafts became tangled on a portion of the Howe Avenue bridge. Five fire engines, 3 boats, 4 medics and 2 helicopters assisted in getting the group to shore safely.
Crews were able to save everyone in the group.
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A controversial federal policy that could require millions of trees to be cut down on Central Valley levees is the target of a lawsuit.
Three environmental groups filed suit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Monday in federal court in Sacramento.
The Army Corps sets national standards for levee safety. In 2007 it unveiled a revised maintenance policy that forbids trees or shrubs on levees. Instead, only short grass is allowed on levees and within 15 feet on either side.
The policy raises significant concerns in California, where levee vegetation composes much of the remaining 5 percent of the Central Valley’s historic riparian forest. As such, it is crucial shade and habitat for migrating endangered fish, as well as nesting habitat for many endangered birds.
“This would be the most massive intentional infliction of environmental damage on our rivers that we’ve seen in modern times,” said Bob Wright, senior counsel at Friends of the River in Sacramento. “It’s mind-boggling.”
Other plaintiffs are Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity.
The plaintiffs allege the Army Corps policy violates the Endangered Species Act, because the agency did not consult with federal wildlife agencies; and the National Environmental Policy Act, because it didn’t prepare an environmental study. Army Corps spokesman Pete Pierce declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The policy has not yet been carried out in the Central Valley. State and local agencies struck a deal with the Army Corps to delay it until next year while they work out a compromise.
The Corps also created a process for local agencies to obtain exemptions so trees can remain. However, this may require costly levee redesigns.
The potential removal of thousands of trees in the Sacramento area alarms many residents who value their shade and scenery, particularly along the American River Parkway.
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Sacramento Metropolitan firefighters rescued nearly 30 stranded rafters along the American River in just the past three days. The reason? The fast flowing American River is shoving rafts into trees, now under water, and popping the rafts like party balloons.
Sacramento County Park Ranger Steve Ingall describes the rafts as “modified pool toys.”
“People are just blatantly running the risk of killing themselves,” said Ingall.
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