A canoe, a rope and a swimmer: rescuing Californians stranded by recent violent storms


The woman was clinging to a tree in complete darkness. Nearby, his gray van was submerged in murky, brown water.

She was trapped alongside a Fair Weather Bridge, a causeway built over Coyote Creek just north of Ventura. The creek had overflowed and flooded the crossing after a powerful storm hit the area on Monday.

About 100 feet away, voices shouted over the rushing water. Hold onthey told him. A lifeguard arrives.

The task of getting the stranded and soaked woman to safety was given to the Ventura County Fire Department Swiftwater Rescue Team. Their tools, a rope and a canoe.

Across the state, rescue teams like Ventura’s have been coming to the aid of people stranded in flooded neighborhoods and trapped in cars after a series of winter storms hit California in recent weeks.

San Diego firefighters help Humberto Maciel rescue his dog from his flooded home in Merced, Calif., Jan. 10.

(Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

Although hundreds of people were rescued, there were at least 19 storm-related deaths in California. Earlier this week, Governor Gavin Newsom said storms had claimed “more lives than wildfires in the past two years combined”.

In summer and fall — and increasingly throughout the year — firefighters battle the wildfires that plague this drought-stricken state. When winter and spring are as wet as California is now, they stand up against the floods.

Either way, they are in a fight against nature.

On Jan. 4, as the first storms began to dump heavy rain, the State Office of Emergency Services stationed the Bakersfield Fire Department Swiftwater Rescue Team just outside of Sacramento.

As the team waited to deploy, its six members practiced rescue scenarios on the American River. Then, around 2:30 a.m. on January 9, they got a call: Head to Merced.

With rain-swollen Bear Creek flooding city streets, the team began evacuating entire neighborhoods. Five team members waded through water that was hip-deep to chest-deep and looked like chocolate milk. The water temperature fell below 50 degrees.

A fast water rescue team performs a water rescue in Merced.

The Bakersfield Fire Department Swiftwater Rescue Team performs a rescue in Merced on January 10. In one neighborhood they saved more than 50 people.

(Bakersfield Fire Department)

Rescuers wore red and black drysuits, life jackets, boots, helmets and gloves. They towed their boat alongside them as they knocked on doors and offered residents the chance to leave. In some cases, residents have had to deal with nearly 2 feet of water in their homes. They packed groceries, gym bags and backpacks and brought their cats, birds and dogs.

“Everyone was very polite, very quick and very grateful to have had the opportunity to get out and get to dry ground,” said Jason Kingsley, the rescue team leader.

As they navigated the streets, Kingsley said, they spotted partially floating cars and others moved by flowing water and clustered in the shallows.

At one point, they came across a woman who had accidentally driven down a flooded road and got stuck. The water reached about the middle of his car window. The team was able to get her out the sunroof, slide her over the hood of the car, and get her into the boat, all without her getting wet.

The team evacuated around 50 people that day.

“We train for this kind of thing, but training and actually doing it is very different,” said Benjamin Henggeler, fire captain and task force leader. “It forces you to use all your skills from everything you have learned and prepared.”

Among the dozens of teams deployed by the state to recent storms was the CAL OES Oakland Fire Department Rapid Water Rescue Team 4. On Tuesday, the team — which included firefighters from Oakland and outside agencies – did a reconnaissance of Salinas, Gilroy and Hollister and visited local fire stations to alert them that they were in the area.

A little after 10 p.m., they received a call that two men were trapped on the roof of a truck in the San Benito River. The water had reached the windows.

Oakland firefighters rescue two men trapped on top of truck

The Oakland Fire Department rescues two men trapped on the roof of a truck that was in the San Benito River in Hollister, California on January 10, 2023

(Oakland Fire Department)

The team came up with a plan to use the ladders from the Hollister Fire Department and create a bridge over the water. They knocked down a 24-foot extension ladder from the shore to a small island in the water and crawled over the rungs.

It was the first time that Geoff Gray had crossed water on a ladder. He estimated the water beneath him was flowing at 20 mph.

“You’re only inches from the water because the water is moving fast,” said Gray, an Alameda Fire Department captain/paramedic and crew member. “You just start doing what you know, even if it’s a little different from what you’ve done before.”

Cassie Kays, a rescue specialist on the team, likened the experience to climbing a ladder at a carnival. As the Oakland firefighter crossed the river, she carried a second ladder to stretch from the island to the hood of the truck. At the end of the ladder, the team had attached life jackets that the men could use in case of trouble.

Gray then walked to the truck and guided the men as they crawled through the ladder to the patch of land. From there, Kays led them through the next ladder to the shore.

“I was relieved for them that we got them out safe and sound. I was pleased that we had a fairly successful mission,” Kays said. “I felt like it happened pretty quickly. and gently.”

Gray called the rescue a team effort with Hollister Fire, law enforcement and the whitewater team.

The two men, who were not injured, were later arrested for trespassing, according to the San Benito County Sheriff’s Office. The 21-year-old and 25-year-old were in a prohibited area.

“I think they were driving there just to get off the road, just to see if they could cross the river, and they didn’t know the level of the river was so high and the water was so fast “said Cmdr. Silvestre Yerena, at the sheriff’s office.

In Southern California, the Ventura County Fire Department deployed two whitewater teams of six members each to respond to incidents in the county. The Oxnard Fire Department also deployed a team.

During the storm that began Jan. 9, Ventura County Fire Departments responded to 22 calls for running water and rescued more than 80 people.

This included more than a dozen people rescued from the Ventura River. The fire department used a 35-foot ladder to help people climb onto a bridge.

“We haven’t had any whitewater issues in the last three or four years or anything major like we’ve had for the past few days,” said team captain Tom Lanski. Ventura County Fire Department Swiftwater Rescue. “We just didn’t have any rain, our rivers were quite dry. There was simply no water flowing anywhere in Southern California.

On Monday, the team responded to calls from around noon to 2 a.m., Lanski said. The teams “were non-stop, it was just go, go go.”

That evening, Lanski’s team learned that a woman had become stranded on Camp Chaffee Road.

As the team attempted to sail towards her, mudslides forced them to abandon their boats. They encountered mud that was 5 feet deep and stretched 100 feet across the road.

“It was actually quite scary, because we were going to an area that had had a lot of slips,” Lanski said. “You can’t see the side of the hill, so you don’t know if you’re going to be swept aside every second.”

When they reached the stranded woman, it was 9 or 10 p.m. and her truck was submerged in about 7 feet of water.

Jeff Whitehouse – dressed in a drysuit and a neon green and black life jacket – had the task of swimming almost 100 feet to reach it. His team had attached a rope to his vest to pull him back if he got in trouble.

Whitehouse couldn’t see the woman through the pouring rain and darkness. He made his way through the current, in water less than 40 degrees, at one point bumping into a tree trunk that had washed away downstream.

As he was swimming, he reached a palm tree and used it to pull himself towards the truck. He called out to the woman, then spotted her stuck in the fork of a tree, holding on tightly to its branches. He asked if she was okay. She told him she was cold and wet.

“She was really happy to see me,” he said.

Whitehouse rushed over to help him put on a life jacket. The water was rising and time was running out.

The team used a canoe that had run aground nearby to get the woman to safety. Once she and Whitehouse were on board, a recovery team helped guide the craft.

As soon as they reached dry land, they made sure the woman did not need medical attention. Then they loaded her into a vehicle, turned on the heater, and pulled her out.

“We were just battling the weather,” Whitehouse recalled. “Visibility was probably the biggest challenge, just trying to locate it. We made it work.

That same night, the county’s other swiftwater rescue team rescued four people from a car stuck in the middle of a stream. The crew raised a ladder 14 feet above the raging water and on the corner of the vehicle’s hood.

With more storms expected in the coming days, crews were deployed again on Friday evening. They would be on call for any white water that erupted.

And they were ready to start all over again.


Los Angeles Times

Not all news on the site expresses the point of view of the site, but we transmit this news automatically and translate it through programmatic technology on the site and not from a human editor.
Back to top button