County firefighters' boat ready for river rescues

CCFR crew works to make recreation on the water safer

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

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photoAbout 10 firefighters are trained to pilot Clark County Fire & Rescue's 19-foot rescue boat and respond to calls along the Columbia, Lewis and Lake rivers.

(/The Columbian)

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photoClark County Fire & Rescue's rescue boat, used by firefighters who learn to be boat pilots, sees more medical emergencies on the water during summer.

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The 19-foot rescue boat took a few minutes to get going. The engine whined like a car not wanting to start. Once it roared to life, Fire Capt. Abe Rommel slowly pulled out from the 5 Mill St. dock, next door to Ridgefield Kayak Rentals.

Rommel pilots Clark County Fire & Rescue's jet-powered boat at 5 mph near the marina; anything damaged by the boat's wake will be CCFR's responsibility. The wake-free areas where boats have to slow down can sometimes slow down rescue response times, he said.

The crew is waiting for FEMA's final approval to get two new boats, called Quick Response Vehicles, equipped to respond to medical emergencies on the water and fight fires along the waterfront.

Rommel said the current boat was bought on surplus from the sheriff's office. And before that, CCFR had a 17-foot Boston Whaler, which couldn't protect the crew from the elements when they went out on calls.

"I miss it," Rommel said. "It's like your first car."

For now, firefighters trained to be boat pilots navigate the rescue boat along the Columbia River -- anywhere from Martin Island to Frenchman's Bar.

"It kind of adds another level to 'You don't know what you're going to do today,'" Rommel said.

About 10 firefighters are trained to operate the boat, perform water rescues and deal with the unique features of the water.

Pilings left from logging at an old area mill and trees along the river can make navigating more difficult.

When a 17-year-old boy was stranded July 15 on the Columbia, Cowlitz County District 1 Fire Chief Eric Dehning helped navigate the boat through pilings, dikes and shallow water. The boy, Antonio Danda, hung on to a log waist-deep in water for three hours.

Danda had been inner-tubing with a group on the Columbia when their tow line tangled in the propeller of the boat's engine and the engine died, disabling the boat. He was swept down the river when he went to get help.

When CCFR got to him, the rescuers reached out a pike pole and pulled Danda out of the water. They put blankets on the teen and sent him to a nearby boat ramp where a paramedic was waiting to treat him.

People having fun on the water may not realize just how strong and cold the water can be, said firefighter Dan Ferber.

"If it's warm out, people think the water is warm, too," Ferber said.

An air temperature of 66 degrees is comfortable if you're on land, but 66-degree water is dangerously cold for a swimmer. Cold water robs the body of heat 25 to 30 times as fast as air, according to the U.S. Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water.

"You lose dexterity and the ability to use your extremities much faster," Ferber said.

Ferber said he sees a lot of cases of hypothermia and drownings in the summer when swimmers get cold and tire easily. He estimates that popular swim destinations Paradise Point Park, six miles south of Woodland, and the Ghost Bridge in Ridgefield each average at least one drowning per year.

When Amanda Duarte was killed by a southbound Amtrak train on the Ghost Bridge over the Lewis River in Woodland, CCFR went out with the rescue boat. Amanda's boyfriend had jumped in the water, so they were sent to check out the situation.

Active currents

In the dredge channel along the North Fork of the Lewis River, which flows into the Columbia, the water is 50 feet deep. The channel, dug for big ships moving through the Columbia, makes the water move faster.

"It's very active. It just doesn't look like it," Ferber said.

Underneath the surface of the water is undertow that can pull swimmers under the water and currents that pull swimmers downstream. And when the tide goes out, the water moves even faster.

Rescues on the Columbia come with a unique set of problems. People in distress say they're on the Columbia, but there are no familiar streets or intersections and they may not know what the river markers mean. Rescuers often have to find them based on landmarks.

When rescuers went to help Danda, they were sent to the Ghost Bridge, about one mile away from where he actually was.

As water levels drop in the summer, certain spots become too shallow to maneuver through. At full speed, the CCFR rescue boat needs 11/2 feet of water; when it's moving slower, 3 to 4 feet. In a channel too shallow and narrow for the jet boat, rescuers can paddle a 13-foot inflatable raft to a person needing help.

If FEMA approves the new boat, it should help the crew to not only rescue people on the Columbia, but also to put out fires from the water.

The city of Ridgefield is looking to clean up and redevelop its waterfront. Behind the CCFR boating station, a community of floating homes stretches for a quarter of a mile. There's even a three-story floating duplex, Ferber said.

Putting out a fire on the Columbia from land takes a lot more manpower, he said.

As we near the Ridgefield dock, the rescue boat hops over a few wakes, jostling everyone in the boat.

"Just keeping you on your toes," Rommel grins.

Patty Hastings: 360-735-4513; twitter.com/col_cops; patty.hastings@columbian.com.