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Are we prepared for possible flood?

Posted: Monday, Mar 20th, 2017

The Bear River was running higher than normal earlier this week as two weeks of unseasonably warm weather has accelerated snowmelt. (HERALD PHOTO/Bethany Lange)

EVANSTON — Warm weather may be a relief for many after a bitterly cold, snow-heavy winter, but unless a freeze-thaw pattern resumes, the snow in the mountains may melt too quickly.

With last week’s consistently warm temperatures, the Blacks Fork River overflowed its banks near Granger over the weekend. On Sunday, March 12, Sweetwater County evacuated about 40 people from a Granger trailer court. Most evacuees are still at the Community Center in Granger.

People who do not live in or have legitimate business in Granger have been asked to avoid driving to the town.

Two county roads north of the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge were also closed on Monday after being washed out and impassable.

“We are asking that everyone avoid the area for their own safety,” Sweetwater County Sheriff Mike Lowell said in a press release. “Water levels can change for the worse with little or no warning.”

Uinta County officials are also preparing for possible flooding from the Bear River this spring — and as the snow melts, the water will be even more treacherous.

State park officials keep a close eye on the river levels and have signage in case the levels rise too much, said Wade Henderson, Bear River State Park superintendent. Parts of the state park have been closed in past years when the river rose and started making pathways and parking lots unsafe.

He said the public should be aware that wherever there is water, it can be difficult to tell how deep it is, and the river current is stronger than it looks. Even when water is creeping across a parking lot, it can be easy to slip and fall down.

There doesn’t have to be white water for the water to be running fast; even rivers with a smooth surface can have a breathtakingly fast current beneath the surface, and obstacles, cold temperatures and possible injury just compound the danger.

Evanston is close enough to the Uintas (the source of the mountain snowmelt) that the water is bitterly cold in the spring. Henderson estimated that the temperatures could be below 35 or 37 degrees in the spring runoff, and it could take only a couple of minutes for hypothermia to start taking hold if someone falls into the river.

“When the water’s that cold, it doesn’t take very long at all before your body starts to shut down due to hypothermia,” Henderson said.

The water takes awhile to rise, though, so Henderson said officials usually have a couple of days to prepare. There are high and low cycles, and he keeps an eye on the National Weather Service river predictions.

“We do have some idea of when it’s going to peak,” Henderson said.

People should be cautious around the river, especially with children. If they get caught by the current, they could be swept away from shore very quickly.

“They need to respect that river,” Uinta County Sheriff Doug Matthews said emphatically. “Man, I’ve heard that from my parents since I was tiny.”

Matthews said the fire department has a specially trained whitewater rescue team and equipment in case anyone falls into the river, and their goal is to be on scene within 10 minutes of a call — but a rescue attempt could become a recovery attempt by the time 10 minutes have passed, whether because it took time to respond or because it took time to locate the person being swept downstream.

“When we had the person go in [last year],” Matthews said, “I believe with the water temperatures and the air temperatures at the time, the survival rate was about four and a half minutes.”

“You’ve just got to respect ... those high waters and just stay away from it,” he said.

That is not to say that people should not hold out hope. After all, the fire department has all the equipment to stay safe and perform a rescue, and Evanston is small enough that, if people are on duty, they can respond quickly to the river. Citizens should not try to conduct their own rescue attempts in case of an emergency, since that is almost certain to lead to more danger.

There are limits to what first responders can do, though. For one, Matthews said the Uinta County Sheriff’s Office is the only law enforcement entity around Evanston that is on duty 24/7. The fire department only has four full-time employees, and although they can be called out after hours, that takes extra time. If the sheriff’s office is first on the scene, the deputies have ropes but no life jackets and so cannot go into the water without severe risk to themselves.

Last year, Uinta County Sheriff’s Office investigator Jamie Schmidt went into the water after a man who drowned, and Schmidt had to be treated for hypothermia after being rescued himself.

“Just kind of watch the water and stay back, because ... when it leaves the river and leaves the bank, you never know what’s going on beneath the water,” Henderson said.

Another part of the county’s flood preparations includes sandbags, and although the county has been working to fill them, Matthews is requesting help from the community to fill enough bags.

He said inmates at the jail have been filling sandbags, and as of last week, they had about 500 bags filled — but he said he thinks Uinta County needs at least 10 times that number. The county would welcome any volunteers willing to help fill sandbags; Matthews said the county will provide the sand and the bags.

Filled sandbags are available at the Uinta County Shop (632 Uinta St.), and people can call dispatch at (307) 783-1000 to set up a pickup time. People must provide their own transportation for the sandbags, though.

Another piece of flood preparation is the CodeRED early notification system. Through CodeRED, county, school and city officials can send up to 60,000 pre-recorded emergency telephone messages per hour. To sign up for the list, individuals and businesses should visit www.uintacounty.com/436/CodeRED or http://tinyurl.com/jtb9j4s.

The town of Bear River is readying for flooding, too, but because of previous floods, is better prepared. Mayor Troy Nolan said the town already has about 3,000 sandbags and has all the procedures ready in case of flood. The town council has talked about the possibility of flooding as well, but just has to wait and see what will happen with the Bear River.

In his 10 years of involvement with the town, Nolan has not seen many bad floods, and the times that it did flood, he said the residents worked together to help each other and to clean up. The water tended to stay around for a long time but did not threaten animals or homes.

Nolan also advised that people sign up for CodeRED so they can be easily notified in case of emergency.

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