Rio Rancho firefighters are warning people to stay out of the Rio Grande during its dangerous spring high flow, but they’re still training to make sure they’re ready to rescue people from the water if needed.
People have drowned after being swept away or caught on and pulled underwater by partially submerged debris in recent years, and the strong flow from snowmelt is expected to set records this year.
Annual Rio Rancho Fire Rescue Department training in rescue from the shore — which involves throwing a 50-foot rope with the right timing to reach a moving victim and in a way that doesn’t tangle the rope — took place last week.
“Every member of our department is trained up to the operations level, which means, if we have an emergency in the water, they’re trained and comfortable coming down and rescuing someone in the water,” said Capt. Ryan Floersheim, one of two firefighters playing the role of a victim Monday at the North Beach off Riverside Drive.
RRFR also has 12 firefighters on the Rio Grande Basin Technical Rescue Team, whose members are trained to go in the water or operate boats to save people in danger of drowning. Floersheim is one of them.
He said the department has resources to help people in the water at the US 550 bridge, Willow Creek and North Beach. After North Beach, Corrales Fire Department would take over rescue efforts.
This spring, Floersheim said the Rio Grande’s flow is expected to reach record-breaking levels.
“The average flow of the Rio Grande as it passes through Rio Rancho is 1,600 cubic feet per second,” he said, adding the flow was 2,300 cubic feet Monday and expected to increase with the spring snowmelt.
Spring brings different conditions than people may be used to seeing. Fire Chief Paul Bearce said flows may be 600 cubic feet per second or lower in the winter.
“People are used to coming down and saying the Rio Grande isn’t dangerous,” he said.
However, spring flows, which may reach 4,000 cubic feet per second this year, can sweep people off their feet and downstream, even in shallower water, he said. Plus, debris and sandbars in the river can snag swimmers and pull them under the water, which can apply hundreds of pounds of force.
“The chance of survival is very, very low at that point,” Bearce said.
Even wearing a life vest, a swimmer isn’t likely to escape the force of water against debris.
One of the firefighters in the water playing the role of victim was caught on a long piece of rebar sticking out of a chunk of concrete Monday. He was able to untangle himself and pull the debris out of the river, Floersheim said, but the incident underscores the danger.
Bearce said people should stay out of the river, whether they’re swimming or boating, until the spring flow dies down in July or August.
“You have to respect the power of the water, and that’s really the lesson we have to learn here,” he said.
He also advised boaters and kayakers to stay out of the Rio Grande for now.
“I have kayaks, and I wouldn’t put my kayaks in right now,” unless he needed to rescue someone, Bearce said.
Floersheim said if kayakers do go in the Rio Grande, they need to be aware of their surroundings to avoid debris, including piles of branches, at or just under the surface of the water.