Icy temperatures and fast-flowing waters have prompted emergency officials to issue a warning for people to use extreme caution around creeks and river channels.
According to Dale Jorgensen of Penticton Search and Rescue, the problems are expected to worsen as the spring runoff reaches its peak in the coming weeks.
“Right now the water is probably around six degrees Celsius which is extremely cold, so if you fall in it can immediately put you into cardiac arrest,” said Jorgensen, who estimated most people would not survive 10 minutes in those conditions. “As well, cold moving water will draw the heat out of your body 250 times faster than water that is not moving, like a still lake.”
Although at this time the Okanagan River Channel doesn’t appear to be moving quickly, Jorgensen pointed out there are still some spots which are deemed swift water — moving faster than five kilometres an hour.
“It can be dangerous even in shallow water (three feet) because the first thing people try and do when they fall in is stand up,” he said. “If there are rocks and any other debris in the water, you can get your foot caught which will then force you ahead with the current and force you under the water. If the water is deeper than you can hold your head out of the water with your arm, you will drown.”
Because of the faster water movement and higher levels there is also the danger of banks being undercut and becoming unstable, making them very dangerous for people or pets coming too close to the edge.
The volunteer agency was recently able to upgrade its arsenal of rescue equipment, specifically for swift-water emergencies, with the purchase of two items.
The first is a line-across gun which, using .22-calibre cartridges, can propel a small rope across a river, making it easier to feed a second, heavier line to the opposite side.
Money for the gun was donated by the Okanagan Fest-of-Ale Society.
The second piece is a 24-foot fibreglass extension pole which can be used to pass a line or life-jacket to a person in distress.
“The benefit of this equipment is that it is much safer for us to operate that way without putting a swimmer in the water unnecessarily, that’s the last thing we want to do,” said Jorgensen.
The danger, even to those who have emergency training in rescue work, was highlighted in June 2011, when 29-year-old Sheilah Sweatman of Nelson Search and Rescue died while on a recovery mission.
The woman apparently became entangled in a steel cable when she and a partner were attempting to retrieve the body of a drowning victim from a submerged vehicle in the Goat River near Creston.
The victim had attached the cable to the vehicle and was pulled from the raft she was on when the vehicle shifted and the cable wrapped around her leg.
“That incident certainly raised the awareness that even with all the training we do, accidents still happen,” said Jorgensen. “There’s also a lot of (untrained) people who will jump in to save a person, and the next thing you know you have two lives that are lost. As heroic as it might be, it’s something that people still need to think about before doing that. You need to know how to do these things right.
“My advice is to be aware and be careful and have a great deal of respect for moving water.”
In November of last year a coroner’s jury investigating the case of the drowned search and rescue volunteer made nine recommendations.
Those included having universal training and equipment for those agencies and clarifying the roles of the organizations involved in such work.
Penticton Search and Rescue does regular swift-water training exercises to keep its members up to speed on the use of equipment and the latest techniques.