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Sonoma County rescue crews practicing on rain-swelled Russian River

Sonoma County crews getting in practice for swift water rescues
Sonoma County crews getting in practice for swift water rescues 02:45

During the height of the storms on Tuesday, the Russian River was only 2 feet from flood stage in Guerneville, north of Santa Rosa.

The water levels are expected to recede over the next few days as the storms move out, but the Sonoma County Fire District is using the time as an opportunity for some important training.

"Want to make sure you guys are cognizant of the debris that's in the waterway here," Battalion Chief Mike Stornetta said into his radio. 

He's with Sonoma County Fire District and is overseeing training for four teams of swift water rescue crews on the Russian River.

"Really, I want these guys to get comfortable in this environment. I want them to be comfortable on the waterways; I want them to be comfortable swimming," said Stornetta. 

He is a fourth-generation Sonoma County resident and said he has a passion for being out on the water.

"You know, I grew up fishing on this river from the time that I was a kid with my dad," he said. 

That's also why he says he wants the crews in the department to be ready if something goes wrong.

Stornetta was overseeing the practice of some of the toughest rescues, like pulling someone out of the fastest currents in the middle of the river.

As the small boat made three or four tight circles in the water, Stornetta explained, "That's a J-turn, and it brings the hull of the boat lower to the water which makes it a lot easier for us to bring a victim inside of the boat."

The teams practiced rescuing someone who might be clinging to trees along the shoreline.

"We're going to get our rescue craft in as close as we can and then the rescue crews are going to be throwing a rope to that victim. And once that victim has a rope, they're going to pull that victim into the boat," said Stornetta.

"It's one of those skills that's perishable, like a lot of other skills that we have in the fire service, so getting out here and practicing our skillset is very important for us," said firefighter Tom Krausmann.

He said training in the swift water is almost impossible to simulate, which is why coming out during the storms is critical.

"When it's up to flood stage, which we are just below it right now, you're going to get a lot of volume through this river. You can see how much wider it is than it normally is," Krausmann said. "We are looking for what the current is doing. We are looking for any eddies, which are spots in the river that it will come around something."

Experience and training allow crews to make quick, flawless rescues should the need arise.

"It's so exciting to see everyone come to Sonoma County to be able to share basically what I grew up with, but we also want them to be safe," Stornetta said.

The most common calls of people needing rescues from flood waters are drivers who try to cross through flooded roads and get stuck, Stornetta said. They also handle a handful of calls each year with kayakers or people who were canoeing.

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