Firefighters ready for river rescues as runoff picks up

Posted at 9:37 AM, Apr 29, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-29 11:37:41-04

MISSOULA – The return of warmer weather will prompt many Montanans to start thinking of braving that first cool dip in area waters.

But with record snows just starting to melt, we’re expected to face several weeks of dangerously cold, high water on our rivers and streams. And even for Missoula firefighters who are experts in rescuing someone in trouble, it’s a situation they don’t take lightly.

With the spike in temperatures and the start of our rainy season, rivers and streams are starting to run high and fast. That’s always a concern for the Missoula Fire Department’s swiftwater rescue team.

“Yeah, so the biggest thing that we see at times is that when it is warmer, people don’t understand the water is still very, very cold," said Missoula firefighter Mike Thurlow. "And especially right now with the water rising the way that it is, there’s a lot of debris in the water and a lot of times we underestimate how powerful the current actually is.”

Training for rescues on the Clark Fork, and smaller streams, is something the firefighters take very seriously. That’s because even with all their training and gear, high water in the spring and early summer can be a killer.

“We wear a full helmet. We wear a life jacket. Most times, especially this time of the year, we’ll be in a full dry suit with layers underneath to keep us warm. And that’s to just help combat that hypothermia that we worry about when somebody’s in the water for a long period of time.”

“We always have upstream safety, that’s kind of looking for those logs coming down. Just the debris in the water that we can’t see when we’re down in the water. And we also have a backup that’s downstream from us, just in case one of us do get in trouble, we have somebody there to rescue ourselves in the event that we need it.”

Sometimes people get into trouble just getting the shock of that first face full of cold water.

“This time of the year, even when you get splashed on the face when you’re swimming through the waves, it’s a reality check every year of how breathtakingly cold the water can be.”

But it’s the kind of mission Thurlow and his colleagues train for, meeting the challenge of the unexpected, when things go wrong.

“The thing I like is that it’s always something different, a different training that we’re doing," Thurlow said. "We’re always trying to push ourselves that little next step to, hopefully, when the rescues come in, that we feel more capable and able to help out whoever needs help.”

The hope is for people to be cautious and not put themselves, and the firefighters, at risk.

Next week, Missoula Fire will be training with their colleagues from Billings on the Clark Fork.