Mammoth snowmelt making rivers so dangerous that ‘if you fall in, you’re done’

Tulare County Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Torres erects a sign at The Stairs access point stating that the Tule River is closed.
Tulare County Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Torres erects a sign at The Stairs access point stating that the Tule River is closed.

The deaths of five people in two Tulare County rivers in less than a month are prompting officials to warn the public about the dangers of rushing water fed by the heavy snowpack now melting in the Sierra.

“Stay away from the river’s edge, and don’t enter the water,” said Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux.

Starting Thursday, the sheriff’s office restricted access to the Tule River, with the restrictions to last for several weeks until the swift water recedes.

When the latest drowning on the Tule occurred Wednesday, it was obvious drastic measures were required, Boudreaux said.

“I couldn’t wait any longer,” he said. “I haven’t seen that much water coming down the river for 12 years.”

The river is so swift from snowmelt that death is almost certain for anyone caught in the current, he said.

Officials believe it’s the first time that use of the Tule River has been closed due to safety worries.

Boudreaux said he once was on a search-and-rescue team on the Kern River and struggled to stay afloat even though he was wearing a life vest.

“The river pushes you under and there’s no coming up,” he said.

Three people have died in the Tule River and two in the Kaweah River inside Sequoia National Park.

Four of the victims appear to have slipped on sand that’s often found on boulders, the sheriff said. Another entered the river to rescue a friend but was swept downstream. Alcohol was not a factor in the tragedies, he said.

There are no plans to restrict access to the Kaweah River in the Three Rivers area, but the deputy assigned to that area is monitoring the river to see what actions might be needed to protect the public, Boudreaux said.

Ranger Mike Theune said Sequoia National Park has no plans to restrict access to the Kaweah River inside the park.

Meanwhile, the Kings River remains closed in both Kings and Tulare counties due to debris, high water and undertows. Those restrictions have been in place since mid-March.

No special restrictions on the Kings or other rivers are currently in effect in Fresno County, but the sheriff’s office is urging caution about using rivers for recreation.

“The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office is urging people to stay out of the rivers right now,” spokesman Tony Botti said. “Between the snowmelt and existing water being released from reservoirs, it is creating high water flows with strong currents.

“Those conditions along with debris being washed downstream create a dangerous situation for anyone on or in the water. Be cautious even as you walk the banks of the rivers. It’s also always a good idea to wear a life jacket if you are going to be anywhere close to the water.”

Lost Lake Park and Skaggs Bridge Park in Fresno County are closed due to flooding from peak water flows in the lower San Joaquin River, a condition expected to stay that way for weeks.

Sierra National Forest, which includes Huntington and Bass lakes and the upper San Joaquin, Kings and Merced rivers, is also advising extreme caution.

“The water, as inviting as it is, is extremely cold,” said public affairs assistant Alex Olow. “We wouldn’t advise anyone to get in.”

The National Weather Service is also warning of high river flows.

“Rivers fed by melting snow over the high Sierra will experience significant water rises this week,” the weather service said in a posting. “The air will be warm, but the water will be cold and the water will be swift.”

Additionally, “the onset of hypothermia can can occur shortly after being in the water.”

The temperature in Fresno hit a high of 99 degrees Thursday, one degree below the record for the date. But cooler weather is forecast for the weekend, with highs in the 60s, due to an approaching storm. The warming trend will resume after the storm system passes.

Boudreaux said he contacted Sequoia National Forest, which has parking lots for day use of the upper Tule River at Coffee Camp and a place called The Stairs, where stairs lead down to the river.

The foresters were “very responsive” to restricting access to the river, he said.

The public can park at the day use areas at Coffee Camp and walk down toward the river, but visitors will be blocked from getting close to the river, he said.

“It’s remarkably beautiful, but it’s dangerous,” Boudreaux said. “Watch from afar.”

Supervisor Mike Ennis, whose district includes the area, said lives are at stake.

“You fall in the river, you’re done,” he said.

The public flocks to the river when it gets hot, he said. “Five or six people will drown” unless the river is closed, he said. “I think it’s a fine idea to shut it down.”

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold