Take one look at the Truckee River these days, swollen and turbulent from massive spring runoffs, and you can see why local rescue and medical personnel are nervous.
“Our big concern, especially with the water moving the way it is right now, is inexperienced people that are not aware of the hazards of swift water and what the force and power of the river really is,” said Gene Welch, public safety and information officer for the Truckee Fire Protection District.
“There are specific hazards, like what we call ‘strainers,’ like a tree that’s down with branches in the river so that anything that approaches it gets strained through. And with the force of the river … right now, if a person comes up to one of these strainers, they can’t overcome the force of the river to free themselves.”
Truckee fire rescue crews thought they might have such a scenario last week when someone reported what they thought was an overturned raft or kayak floating in the river approximately two miles from the Nevada state line.
The call spurred a response by seven Truckee fire personnel in two ambulances, the department’s heavy rescue unit and a command vehicle, in addition to personnel from the Nevada Division of Forestry, the Reno Fire Department and the California Highway Patrol.
And while the object in the river turned out to be a bunch of barrels rather than a watercraft of any kind, the call highlighted what Welch said can be a problem for the department during the summer rafting season.
In similar cases to the one last week, “we’ve had resources down the canyon almost to the state line committed to the scene, and they are unable to respond [to emergencies in town],” he said.
“If it had been an abandoned kayak, what we’ve had to do in the past is send people in the water to make sure there wasn’t somebody trapped in the kayak, which puts our people at great risk,” Welch said.
Incidents where boaters genuinely need help do not bother rescue crews, but Welch said he is worried that someday the fire department’s resources will be sent down river to respond to a false alarm at which time a real emergency will happen in town.
That would mean longer response times as the department would have to call in aid from neighboring emergency response organizations in the region.
“With resources being down the canyon, it’s not that we have no resources left, it’s just that we’ve reduced them. So for anything major, we would be short on resources and may have to call in mutual aid,” Welch said.
To avoid such a scenario, Welch urged boaters to call a local sheriff’s office dispatcher at 911 to report any rafts, kayaks or other vessels they may have bailed out of and not been able to secure.
“The concern that we have is that the vessel will get caught in a strainer somewhere down the river and then someone that is not aware of the hazards will think ‘Oh, free boat.’ and get in the river and become a victim,” Welch said. “So we need to try to recover the vessel before anyone gets in trouble.”
Welch also emphasized that people should not attempt to rescue others who may get trapped in the river.
“People who are not trained in swift water rescue should not go into the river to rescue people,” he said. “They need to contact the sheriff’s department or law enforcement and have a swift water team dispatched before they become a victim.”