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Firefighters preparing for high water rescues

Corrales firefighter and swift-water rescue technician Eamonn Cole works the river in a cove of the Rio Grande off the North Beach in the Corrales Bosque on Thursday. (Argen Marie Duncan/ Rio Rancho Observer)

Corrales firefighter and swift-water rescue technician Eamonn Cole works the river in a cove of the Rio Grande off the North Beach in the Corrales Bosque on Thursday. (Argen Marie Duncan/ Rio Rancho Observer)

Albuquerque, Corrales and Rio Rancho firefighters and rescue teams have been training in recent weeks for high water rescues in flooding situations.

They could put that training to the test over the next several days. Heavy rain, as in 70% chance, is in the forecast today for the western part of the greater Albuquerque area.

The heavier showers are expected in an area south of Interstate 40 and west of Interstate 25 over the Rio Puerco basin. Up to 1.25 inches of rain is possible in some parts of the area.

There is also the potential for high flow-low end flash flooding. Rounds of precipitation are expected through Monday, with more snowfall possible in the higher elevations of the northern mountains. The National Weather Service is expecting minor rises on local rivers and streams due to the additional precipitation.

Corrales firefighters and swift-water rescue technicians held a news conference Thursday afternoon on North Beach in Corrales next to the Rio Grande, demonstrating safe kayaking practices during spring runoff flows.

Rio Rancho firefighters began warning people to stay out of the river at the end of April because of the dangerous spring high flow.

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 involved throwing a 50-foot rope with the right timing to reach a moving victim and in a way that doesn’t tangle the rope.

“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, during department training on the river at the end of April.

He said the department has resources to help people in the water at the U.S. 550 bridge, Willow Creek and North Beach. After North Beach, Corrales Fire Department would take over rescue efforts, and Albuquerque and Bernalillo departments beyond the Alameda bridge. All rescue groups often work together depending on the situation.

Spring brings different conditions than people may be used to seeing. Rio Rancho Fire Chief Paul Bearce said flows may be 600 cubic feet per second or lower in the winter.

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.

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.

Corrales Fire Department Commander Tanya Lattin said law requires everyone of any age who goes rafting, kayaking or paddle boating on the river to wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life vest. The law for paddle craft differs from the less strict law for motor boats.

State Parks Boating Enforcement and Education Program Coordinator Chris Bolen said a life jacket is the No. 1 way to stay afloat.

Lattin said everyone on the river should also take a whistle, horn or other device to attract attention in an emergency, as well as water, food and a cellphone in a water-proof container.

They should go with a buddy and tell someone else where they’re going and when they’ll be back.

“Call early, if someone’s missing,” she said.

Rio Rancho Fire Rescue Chief Dave Patterson said people should buy high-quality, sturdy equipment. Pool toys can be punctured by debris, which the river has more of with high water levels.

Hypothermia is also a danger, even on sunny days.

“The water is still cold, because it’s snow runoff,” Lattin said.

Finally, drinking alcohol while boating or swimming increases danger. It’s illegal to drink and boat, and alcohol is banned in the Corrales and Rio Rancho bosques.

Lattin also warned walkers to stay away from the river bank. The water, running around 4,800 cubic feet a second, has worn away the underside, so the bank could collapse under people.

Sandoval County Sheriff Jesse James Casaus said his deputies would check the river to enforce life-vest and alcohol laws. Corrales firefighters will also patrol in boats to watch for people in danger, said Corrales Fire Chief Anthony Martinez.