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'Someone will die': Jefferson Fire urges floaters to avoid Santiam River
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'Someone will die': Jefferson Fire urges floaters to avoid Santiam River

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The Jefferson Fire District is urging residents not to float the Santiam River between Greens Bridge and the Jefferson boat ramp, as there have been 19 water rescues in that area since Sunday.

“We don’t get that many calls in an entire summer sometimes,” said Tammy Robbins, agency spokeswoman. A dozen of the calls took place on Tuesday night alone.

The confluence of the north and south forks of the Santiam River is heavy with debris, as high water flows this year have eroded the banks and led to downed trees. The water continues to be higher and swifter than normal.

During a trip to the logjam at the confluence on Thursday afternoon, Louis Gisler, JFD division chief, said he worried about residents floating the river from Greens Bridge on inner tubes, air mattresses and pool toys.

"If things keep going the way they're going, someone will die," Gisler said.

The combination of downed trees, branches and rootballs are called “strainers,” Gisler said. For an analogy, he described someone draining pasta into a colander. “The water goes through, but the noodles don’t. As a person, you’re the noodle,” Gisler added. “The water is going to shove you into it and not let you off.”

The confluence is like a giant obstacle course right now, said firefighter/paramedic Stephanie McClung, the district's logistics supervisor. “When you’re in an inner tube, you can’t steer,” she said. 

The cold water of the Santiam is another factor to take into account. “The water temperature is so cold that your muscles freeze up and you can’t swim. It doesn’t matter if you’re an Olympic swimmer,” she added.

A lack of common sense can also be a problem on the river. Some people are using cheap inner tubes or floats meant for lounging in pools, and those devices will easily pop and leave a floater in trouble — and there’s plenty of bright-colored garbage dotting the riverbank as evidence of this trend. Some parents have brought children who can’t swim. Others aren’t wearing life jackets. Some residents have tried to float the dangerous river while heavily intoxicated.

Gisler said that to deal with the emergencies on the Santiam River, the cooperation of numerous agencies is needed, including the Linn County Sheriff’s Office, the Albany Fire Department, the Scio Fire District and the Salem Fire Department. “It can take a lot of people here to handle these emergencies,” Gisler said.

LCSO has put up warning flags and signs notifying floaters and boaters about downed trees and warning them to stay to the right side of the north fork to avoid the debris.

Gisler said authorities are working to remove some of the wood blocking the river, but removing all of the logs won’t be possible. Any removal effort will be complicated because of federal salmon recovery rules, as well as the dangerous nature of dealing with hazards in swift water.

Recreational boaters have been volunteering to help patrol the waterway and have stayed busy.

Scott Dye of Salem said he’s been taking his jet boat on the Santiam River near Jefferson every chance he gets to act as an unofficial lifeguard.

“It’s bad up there,” he said, near the Jefferson boat ramp. Dye said he’s rescued seven people since Monday, and he said many people on the river are oblivious to the dangers. “The last one was pretty scary because it was a mom and a toddler. Luckily, the toddler had a life jacket on, but it was way too big,” he added.

Dye said the river is extremely dangerous right now because the flow of the north fork of the Santiam pushes floaters to the left bank, and they get caught in an L-shaped box of a log jam that they can’t escape.

“Somebody’s going to die,” Dye said.

Kyle Odegard can be contacted at 541-812-6077 or kyle.odegard@lee.net.

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