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How Sacramento Metro Fire suggests people stay safe on the rivers this Memorial Day weekend

With beautiful weather this holiday weekend, officials are making sure people are staying safe both in the water and from coronavirus.

SACRAMENTO COUNTY, Calif. — Memorial Day weekend is widely recognized as the unofficial start to summer and it will sure feel like summer with temperatures projected to hit triple digits. 

Now, these temps are not completely out of the norm for the Central Valley, but they are for the end of May. Here in Sacramento, we typically see our first 100 degree temps the third week of June.

When hot temperatures arrive, it's quite common for many people to head to area waterways to cool off, but local rivers are dangerously cold this time of the year.  

Sacramento Metro Fire Captain Chris Vestal talked to ABC10 about safety precautions people should take when enjoying our local waterways along with dangerously hot temperatures. He is also making sure everyone knows the best ways to stay safe while trying to prevent coronavirus spread.

Q: What's the best way to enjoy the water with family and friends when we're in the middle of a pandemic?

VESTAL: We think, at Metro Fire, that because of the pandemic, we’re going to see a lot more activity, at least there’s a chance for that. We have the relaxing of restrictions as Sacramento County starts moving through phase two. We have parks that are quite frankly being well utilized and that’s great, people getting outside and exercising. So we think that with the holiday weekend coming up, you know the unofficial, official kick-off of summer, we’re going to see some busy crowds throughout our waterways and possibly in other areas of Sacramento county. 

So, we want to remind everybody, the water is still very cold. Only 61 degrees. The flows might be low, but 61 degrees is enough to cause respiratory problems, with only a few minutes of exposure in that water.

Q: For people who are thinking of getting in the water, what are some things they should have with them; protective gear, floaties, things like that?

VESTAL: So, the first thing is, if you’re gonna be in the water, or even near the water, have a personal flotation device or life jacket. Those will literally save your life. They keep your head above water if you were to fall in and especially with this type of cold water, we don’t want you to succumb to that if you start having those hypothermia type issues or respiratory problems. The other thing people aren’t going to typically think about in terms of water safety is sunscreen and hydration.  

We’re having record heat or at least heat we’re not used to at this point this year. If you go outside, perhaps for the first time because you’ve been cooped up inside, you’re gonna hit the sun and it’s gonna feel hotter than it would in normal years if you’re not acclimated to it.

RELATED: Memorial Day weekend will be hot, possible 100-degree heat for the holiday and for days to follow

So, wear sunscreen. Consider wearing long-sleeved shirts or at least t-shirts to protect yourself from that sun exposure and then hydrate and of course what we mean by that is non-alcoholic beverages. If you do enjoy those, just make sure you don’t overdo it.  

Don’t swim if you’re drunk and make sure that if you’re operating the boat to have someone that’s legally able to do that and has all their faculties about them to keep you and your family safe. 

Q: How does cold water temperatures affect kids?

VESTAL: Kids have more surface area relative to their body size, so anything that they’re affected by happens at a faster rate and much quicker than it does for a larger adult. They’re going to reach hypothermia faster. That means that those affects of cold water or sun exposure are going to happen quicker. You need to protect them more. That’s why it’s so important for children, that we have them in a flotation device or a life jacket, that they’re wearing sunscreen, that their bare skin is covered and if they’re anywhere near the water just keep an eye on them. All it takes is to turn your head for a second. They could easily be swept away and you’ll have no idea where they went and where to tell us to go find them.

Q: Are the parks officially open near the waterways?  

VESTAL: The parks are open. However, they’re still recommending that you keep your social distance. They are still recommending that your follow all of those good guidelines. Try not to mix with people that you haven’t been co-habitating with. Try and make sure that you wash your hands. Take some hand sanitizer so if you do have to touch things and use the restroom facilities that you can wash your hand with soap and water or at least some kind of sanitizer. So stay safe. We aren’t out of this yet in terms of the pandemic. There are things that you can do to keep yourself safe and your family safe and though everything is starting to reopen, we still need to take those precautions to make sure that this doesn’t spread any further.

Q: How will you handle life jacket rentals with COVID-19 concerns?

VESTAL: We do expect the life jacket kiosk on the American River to be stocked. It’s something that all the local fire departments, as well as the Sacramento County Regional Parks have recently discussed. What we’re asking people to do this year is to make sure they wear a life jacket. We would rather they wear it than any possible concern about COVID-19. However, if you do bring it back, try and just wash it with some mild soap and water. There’s no need to be too terribly concerned because of the material it’s not something that COVID-19 is expected to live on very long. If you’re using it in the water that should help clean it, as well. If you do borrow them, feel free to return them. If you’d rather keep it and have it for the season that’s fine, too. The biggest point we want you to wear them at all costs and under any situation to keep you and your family safe.

RELATED: 'We don’t want to get to close to others' | Families safely enjoy outdoors during Memorial Day weekend

Q: Are water temps normally at 61 degrees this time of the year?

VESTAL: That’s within the normal ballpark. We’ll see temperatures along the American River Parkway fluctuate between 57-58 degrees in spring, but they only warm up to just under 70 degrees at the hottest and often times that’s always based on the snow melt. So, the late snow this year; we just had heavy rainfall a few days ago. That’s increasing the water flow in the watershed from the Sierra and the foothills. So, we have a very cold snow melt right now. It does take about two or three days sometimes for that snow melt from the high Sierras to reach the lowlands here in the Valley in Sacramento. So, what you’re swimming in especially this time of the year is snow melt. We’re getting water straight from the mountains into Folsom Lake all the way through the Valley before it hits the Delta and actually has a chance to warm up.

Credit: ABC 10

Q: Is there an app you can recommend for people to use to get the water temps before they come out?

VESTAL: I always look at the USGS. That’s the United States Geological Survey. Type in American River water temperature and then the location where you’re going to be at. For instance upper, lower sunrise, Discovery Park. It’s really easy to find. You can find the water temperature then you can also find the flow rate. So, right now we’re dealing with about 1,500 cubic feet per second. That’s a little bit low for this time of year. We’ve seen years where it’s been about four or five thousand cubic feet per second, that’s good. That’s a little bit nicer safety factor this year, but we do expect that to increase once the weather warms up. We have more snow melt from the Sierras and of course that contrast between the water temperature and the 90 degree temperatures we’re expecting for Sunday and Monday it's going to feel really cold. It might feel nice for a second, but it also poses a danger if you’re not paying attention.

Q: Regarding the coronavirus, what are you prepared to do to make sure that people are being safe, without being the bad guys?

VESTAL: The goal right now is to still educate everyone about the correct recommendations and procedures to stay safe. The county park rangers will be out all weekend relaying that message and Metro Fire is going to focus on the actual behavior in the water that’s dangerous. Reminding people to wear a personal flotation device and reminding people not to overload their rafts.

Unfortunately, a lot of the raft companies have not yet opened. So, we also remind people if they’re going to take their own rafts and boat, the American River’s dangerous for that. The water flow is too high even though it's low right now. The water level's low. There’s a lot of branches out that will pop that cheap, store-bought, drugstore, big-box store-type raft.

Q: What’s the best type of raft or flotation device to purchase? 

VESTAL: If you’re going to buy your own flotation device, a TYPE 2 or TYPE 3 life jacket or PFD, personal flotation device, is what’s recommended. If you're looking for a watercraft, non-motorized watercraft is what’s allowed on the American River Parkway, unless you’re fishing less than 5 mph. However, if you are looking for that raft or that type of recreational device, we recommend that you go to a true outdoor store and buy a hard-sided rubber raft that’s made for Whitewater. Even though we don’t have the rapids in the American River, not like what you would see in Coloma, the danger is the rocks, especially at low-water levels and other branches and twigs, that easily rip the cheap and thin plastic material. That’s typically what we see. Towards the end of the year, there are tons of these things littering the sides of the river where the rafts pop in the middle of the river and they end up in the water. So it’s not safe, it’s dangerous. We want you to be in the right type of device. The right type of boat and of course to wear your life jackets.

Q: What's the best way to reach emergency personnel if you have an emergency on the river?

VESTAL: 911 is the best way. You’re going to get us and the county park ranger. The best thing to do is know some kind of landmark about where you are so you can direct us. If you see people in the river that need help, feel free to call us. We’d rather you call us and have them turn out to be okay than us not know or that you waited too long. It takes not a long time for people to drown, but it’ll take us about 10 minutes to be able to get to the river from the station. We have to launch our boat and to start making rescues and of course the travel time off the river depending on where someone is located.

Q: How many people do you normally have come out when you're attempting a rescue?

VESTAL: A typical response for somebody in the water for a water rescue is two boats staffed with either three or four persons each. We also have two fire engines as well as an ambulance. So we get upwards of 15 people plus a battalion chief as well as our helicopter looking for people and directing people. It takes a big coordinated effort, everyone’s good eyes, the park ranger’s help. We talk to each other on the radios as well as Sac County Sheriff, if they arrive on the scene. So it’s a big coordinated effort, but the biggest thing that we can drive home is that we do in fact have people die on this river. Somewhere between ten to 20 people somewhere between now and spring and the end of summer typically die annually in the Sacramento region on our waterways. So, we want to remind everybody to do everything you can to stay safe. We would rather say hi to you in the grocery store. We don’t want to meet you in the middle of the river needing our help.

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