As heatwave moves in and local recreation areas see more traffic, emergency responders issue warnings

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KTXL) — With many recreation opportunities shut down because of the coronavirus, the Auburn State Recreation Area, which remains open, has seen a huge boost in visitors. 

“Yes, this summer has been a lot busier than normal. I would estimate that we’re 50 to 75% above the usage that we had in 2019 at this time of the year,” said Auburn State Recreation Area Superintendent Mike Howard.

Accordingly, 911 calls for people needing rescue are way up.

“We’ve had almost 100 rescues since the beginning of the year down here, actual, legitimate, hands-on rescues,” said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jeremy Rochholz.

Rochholz is often called to the scene of those rescues.

“A lot of people get caught in the current, end up drowning,” he told FOX40.

“The problem is we’re dealing with Mother Nature out here, so there’s a lot of very actual risk,” said Placer County Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Fisher with the Swift Water Rescue Unit. “Just because it is shallow water or it looks relatively calm where you are does not mean, necessarily, that that’s safe.”

“If you’re even near the river, especially children, should be wearing a life jacket at all times,” Howard said.

Signs are posted at the confluence of the North and Middle forks of the American River, warning about rapidly changing water levels.

The water of the North Fork is direct runoff from snowmelt. But the Middle Fork is dam controlled from Lake Clementine.

“Every afternoon, there are releases upstream from the dam for recreational flows, for whitewater boating upstream,” Howard explained. “And those reach the confluence at about 3 p.m. So, the water flows will quadruple roughly within the period of two hours.”

“So, the water that you’re getting into, if you got here at 10 o’clock in the morning, is going to look vastly different at 4 o’clock in the afternoon when you’re trying to leave,” Fisher said. “And that’s more commonly what we’re seeing. We’re seeing people that are intentionally swimming to a specific spot, a rock maybe, in the middle of the river, hanging out there for the day, and then realizing now the water has changed and they don’t feel safe returning.”

Another common problem is heat-related illness and rescuers fear it could worsen with the heatwave this weekend.

“People don’t bring enough water,” Rochholz explained. “So, they end up getting caught deep on the trail without any water, are unable to get back without any help. They overheat.”

“The canyons demand a lot of a person to hike in and out of them. It’s hard to even bring enough water to sustain yourself on a hike like that,” Howard said. “So, my advice during any large heatwave like we’re going to see this weekend is just: Don’t hike in these kind of areas.”

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