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Rescue official: High-flowing river ‘dangerous place to be’

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The water flowing in the Rio Grande is at its highest point in recent years.

Temperatures are expected to soar into the 80s Memorial Day weekend.

The ingredients will be there for a lot of fun on the water in the Albuquerque area.

Those same ingredients will be there for tragedy on the Rio Grande if residents don’t keep up their guard, members of Albuquerque Fire Rescue and Albuquerque Police said Tuesday.

“The river is a good place to recreate and have a good time, but when it’s flowing at 5,000 cubic feet (per second) like it is right now, it’s just a dangerous place to be,” AFR Lt. Chris Carlsen said.

Albuquerque Fire Rescue Lt. Chris Carlsen discusses potential water safety issues in the Rio Grande as spring runoffs reach their highest rates. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

So far, there haven’t been any fatal incidents this year along the river, which is flowing “10-fold” greater than it did last year, Carlsen said.

“But it’s not a question of if it’s going to happen, but when it’s going to happen, unfortunately,” he said.

He said Bernalillo County had an incident a couple of weeks ago with a person lost on the river. The person was found safe.

Albuquerque Police Open Squad Unit Sgt. Chad Melvin said his squad had a couple of calls last week in which it took out its powered boat.

Those calls may increase this weekend, which combined with the end of the school year many consider the unofficial start of summer, Carlsen said.

“All of those families are going to start looking for fun things to do,” Carlsen said. “While we want to encourage people to be outside and have a good time, we also want them to be safe and be smart about how to do that.”

Carlsen, who manages AFR’s heavy technical rescue program, advises those with plans on the river this weekend to take necessary precautions.

“All over the river now, the bank is undefined,” he said. “The water level is up over the banks. Even if you are wading in what you think is ankle-deep water, you may not know where that river edge is, and it’s really easy to fall in. The water speed doesn’t look like it’s moving very fast, but the water is actually moving with a tremendous amount of power and if you’re in that water, you’re going to have trouble getting out on your own.”

He said the most dangerous parts of the river are those with downed branches and debris along the banks.

In normal years, they are easily seen. Not this year. They’re now just below the water’s surface.

“It makes it easier for them to catch the bottom of a boat or craft,” Carlsen said. “It’s going to puncture those things or if you’re swimming, you’re going to get caught up in it. It could make for a dangerous situation.”

He advises people to wear flotation devices and that people be in “actual watercraft” such as kayaks, canoes, paddle boats or inflatable boats.

“Homemade devices aren’t considered boats and shouldn’t be used on the river right now,” Carlsen said. “Now is not the time to throw your inner-tube in the river and take a float down river without really taking some precautions.”

Carlsen said people should notify family and friends of when they are having activities at the river, and when they will be done. He said they should also let others know the route they plan to take, so rescue teams will know where to begin a search.

He said fire and rescue personnel have already been monitoring river flows, looking for hazards and potential trouble spots. Carlsen said water rescues are coordinated with responder partners including APD, Bernalillo County Fire, Corrales Fire and Sandoval County.

APD and Bernalillo County have powered watercraft. Carlsen said fire and rescue staffs a swift water team daily, which operates out of Fire Station No. 3 at Central and Girard. It is the only team within the department that is able to get into the water to help those in need.

Other fire and rescue stations help from the shore.

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