Dennis Bitters would rather not see you.
It’s not personal. And if you ran into him – as the chief of the Ripon Consolidated Fire District he’s pretty much everywhere – he’d be a personable straight-shooter.
But most of the time when people see Bitters and the firefighters under his command it’s because circumstances have warranted an emergency response. And lately, with the summer winding down and the school year just around the corner, Bitters is battling an unforgiving enemy that has claimed lives and property.
The Stanislaus River.
On Monday night Bitters served as the incident commander for a search-and-rescue mission for a pair of river floaters that never checked in after losing their bearings. Most of the time, he said, people lose their points of reference when they get on the water and when they miss their exit point they often find themselves in unfamiliar territory with no idea on how to get back to where they started.
It’s not uncommon for people to just give up and walk through the foliage on the Stanislaus County side – the river serves as the dividing line between San Joaquin and Stanislaus Counties – and look for a farm house where they can call for help. Even when they have cell phones, Bitters said, it doesn’t do them any good when they can’t tell where they are.
If you take the unfamiliarity with the river and combine it with a large group of people and a healthy dose of alcohol, it’s easy to see where problems start. And now that the Stanislaus River is running at an exceptionally low level – exposing tree stumps, bottom snags and sharp bank bushes capable of puncturing even think rubber rafts – it becomes only a matter of time before his crew is back out on the water searching again.
“The principal problem that we see is that people are prepared to be on the water for a length of time and they don’t know where it is that they are,” Bitters said. “Tie in the alcohol consumption with the hot sun – it might be cool in the water but it’s not in the sun and alcohol isn’t something that hydrates you.
“It’s a contributing factor in their mental impairment and they can’t react the way they would normally react, and when they flip, it’s a long ways across some of those points in the river. It’s ever changing – it might look like a pond but it’s moving under the surface and people can get pulled under.”
And the river level isn’t making things any easier. While other fire departments are able to use full-sized boats to patrol their waterways – Lathrop Manteca Fire Department uses a standard-sized boat near Mossdale and points along the San Joaquin River – the rescue team from Ripon needs to use an inflatable raft-like boat with a jet motor to get through the narrow and shallow passages that run from Escalon clear through the other side of Caswell Memorial State Park.
Not even that specialized water rig, however, can combat nature’s lack of cooperation when it comes to water. Two years ago the department purchased kayaks to allow access to points that the go-anywhere boat couldn’t reach, and they’ve become the go-to whenever somebody gets stuck or snagged or lost somewhere along the banks.
It’s not, Bitters said, that he and his guys don’t want to do their job when it comes to protecting the public. But it can also get frustrating watching the amount of time and the resources that go into pulling somebody out that could have easily avoided the situation by using a life jacket – a personal flotation device or PFT – or something capable of handling the river.
“Sometimes we’ll get a call and by the time we get our boat launched the person is already at home watching TV – it ends up costing a lot of time and effort and resources and money to do these searches for people that just don’t know what they’re doing,” Bitters said. “It’s an ever growing problem and more and more people are wanting to use the river and enjoy it but it’s low and it’s conducive to what people want to do.
“We want people to have fun but we also want them to be safe while they’re doing it – people think that taking the purple dinosaur that you have in your pool out there is great because it looks funny but it’s not made for that. And when you factor in the submerged trees and the obstacles and the horseplay – you see deflated rafts all over down there. That water comes from the bottom of Melones and it can be cold, and when you end up on your own in the water with no life jacket, it doesn’t offer much survivability.”