Trouble on the water: how Routt County first responders conduct a river rescue |

Trouble on the water: how Routt County first responders conduct a river rescue

Patrick Gamble, left, rescues Brandon Arnold during a swiftwater rescue training conducted by the Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs. Firefighters with Steamboat Fire Rescue have gone through similar training to conduct river rescues, which often require the collaboration of multiple emergency agencies in Routt County.
File photo/Katie Berning

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When first responders in Routt County receive a report of someone needing a river rescue, they know every second, and rescuer, is vital to saving that person’s life.

“It’s pretty much all hands on deck when we hear someone may be in the water,” said Mel Stewart, Fire Chief of Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue. 

This time of year, Stewart said the Yampa River is running at or near its peak flows. As of Friday afternoon, the river was running at about 2,800 cubic feet per second, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. 

A look at the fast-moving current shows how easily one could get swept away and overpowered. 

The raging river has led to some of the first rescue calls of the summer season. In the last week, Stewart has received two calls for river rescues, both of which ended with no injuries.

Steamboat Rescue is usually the first to respond to such incidents, according to Stewart, but almost every emergency agency in the county may need to deploy personnel. 

A river rescue on Saturday, June 8, involved a coordinated response between Steamboat Police, Sheriff’s deputies, Routt County Search and Rescue volunteers, West Routt Fire Protection District firefighters and Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers.

“We need to get as many eyes on the river as quickly as possible,” Stewart explained. 

For that reason, firefighters always have a raft available they can quickly deploy to scour the river for any missing people. They are also professionally trained to conduct swiftwater rescues.

The rescue last weekend began after someone reported seeing two empty kayaks and a paddle floating down the Yampa River near the Fifth Street Bridge. Steamboat officers found the owner of one of the kayaks, who said she had lost her friend during their float. 

She was concerned for her friend’s safety, particularly after wildlife officers found her empty kayak downstream.

Jay Bowman, president of Search and Rescue, said alcohol was also involved. As is often the case, responders had little information about the friend’s location or her condition. 

Emergency personnel patrolled the riverside looking for the woman’s friend, prepared for a rescue with throw ropes and personal flotation devices.  

The search ended after the missing kayaker was found safe in her own home, which Bowman said is not an uncommon conclusion. Police officers have also found ‘missing’ people kicking back at the bars around town, unaware that anyone had reported them missing on the river. 

But when someone truly needs help, the outcome is often tragic. 

In the last seven years, Bowman said all the true river rescues he can remember responding to ended with dead bodies. Every second is vital in these rescues, and often there are not enough. 

“It all boils down to the river is raging, and it’s freezing cold,” Bowman said.

A person could have fallen into the river at one location, but been swept hundreds of feet downstream within minutes. 

If people are not wearing the proper gear, the cold river temperatures can pose life-threatening hazards. As reporter Eleanor Hasenbeck covered in a story earlier in the week, water temperatures this time of year range from 40 to 47 degrees

Those temperatures are enough to cause hypothermia or to seriously impact a person’s ability to breathe, according to the National Center for Water Safety

With this in mind, Stewart and Bowman urge people to wear personal flotation devices in or around the water. During these peak flows, Stewart also advises people to avoid getting in the river at all unless they are a professional or are with a professional. 

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