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Ripon Fire performed three water rescues during 3-day weekend
ripon water
The Ripon Consolidated Fire Department rescue team goes down the Stanislaus River.

It was a busy weekend for first responders who had to perform a number of water rescues on South County waterways as warm weather drove more people outside.

And with the mercury hovering around the century mark this week and with warm temperatures expected for the foreseeable future, it’s shaping up to be a busy summer for local firefighters with the jurisdictional responsibility of miles of unpredictable riverways.

As more people ventured outside to enjoy the warm summer weather over Memorial Day Weekend, the Ripon Consolidated Fire District got called out to perform three water rescues along the Stanislaus River – where the water is quick-moving and temperatures in the water are at around 50 degrees.

From people who got snagged in trees and couldn’t get out to somebody that was separated from their group, the Ripon Consolidated Fire District and neighboring agencies that aid in water rescues were tasked with traversing the rough conditions multiple times over the weekend.

“The water is cold right now, it’s moving pretty good and there are lot more trees and snags that make the river impassable,” said Lathrop Fire Chief Dennis Bitters. “We had a call about somebody that had become separated from their group and we used everything in our disposal – including helicopters – to try and find him and never came up with anything. That happens more time than not when somebody gets separated and they get out and make it home safely and don’t bother to call and let us know – we just turn it over to the Sheriff’s Office and they take it from there.

“We’re expecting a busy summer this year.”

Part of the issue, Bitters said, with the Stanislaus River is that it’s rarely what it appears.

According to Bitters, from the McHenry Avenue bridge on the border of Escalon and Modesto the bridge in Ripon, there are 22 miles of river while you can traverse the road in only six miles – meaning that there is lots of meandering that can eat up time that people don’t realize because it seems to be such a short distance.

The majority of their calls later in the summer are from people who were supposed to be home hours ago but didn’t realize how long it will take it make it around the numerous bends in the river over even a short distance as the crow flies – which, when reported during the twilight hours or after the sun goes down, makes it dangerous for local firefighters who have to traverse the same conditions without the benefit of daylight.

And those calls in Ripon don’t just tie up the local fire department, but neighboring agencies with different specialties that can aid in the search and possible recovery of somebody who gets lost or doesn’t make it out of the water.

While the Lathrop Manteca Fire District, which has a dive recovery team as a well as a swift water rescue team, they only responded to 13 related calls from the beginning of the year through April. They responded to 7 of those calls in the days surrounding Memorial Day Weekend – including one that involved a reported infant floating on the river alone in an inflatable raft.

Because of a number of blockages on the Stanislaus River that prevent an easy trip from the points where local first responders typically launch their watercrafts, the rescues become tricky depending on where they are located – potentially requiring the dangerous task of lifting the inflatable boat or kayak over the blockage to get to where people are stranded.

“While hot temperatures make the water an ideal place to cool off, it’s what’s under the water that can be the most dangerous,” Lathrop Manteca Battalion Chief Larry Sadoski said. “A trip down the San Joaquin or Stanislaus shows numerous downed trees and other items to get stuck on while being pushed by the water’s current.”

Officials urge anybody who is planning on recreating in or around the river to wear an approved personal flotation device – a life jacket – to ensure that even if they find themselves in a situation that they didn’t expect they won’t have to worry about going underwater.

Last year Lathrop Manteca Fire Chief Gene Neely spearheaded a program to get loaner life jackets posted at both the Dos Reis and Mossdale County Parks that were put on boards where the public can take them when head out onto the water on boats.

Even those that are recreating near the water, Madoski said, need to be aware of their surroundings as their information could prove to be vital when the unexpected strikes.

“We really need to get out two messages – point last seen, and wear a life jacket,” Madoski said. “If you are watching someone in the river and you see them go under the water, pick a landmark and burn it into your memory.

“It’s a super critical piece of intel that we use, and if we can identify the point where a victim went under, we can run calculations and adjust our search patterns to be more effective.”

To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.