Firefighters practice water rescues as Arkansas River rises

08/05/2013 2:00 PM

08/05/2013 2:24 PM

A pigeon struggled against the currents of an unseasonably high and strong Arkansas River on Monday afternoon.

Its wings pinwheeled in a futile attempt to fight the river’s churning brown waves.

Lucky for the pigeon, members of the Wichita Fire Department were at that very moment practicing water rescues from the river’s bank downtown. Two firefighters rode on a Sea-Doo; one man steered while the other sat behind him and periodically splashed into the water so his colleagues on land could practice throwing a rope hundreds of feet long and pulling him back to shore.

The men on the Sea-Doo spotted the pigeon, and the driver steered the machine toward the struggling bird. The man seated behind him reached for the pigeon and missed. The driver circled the bird again; another miss. On his third attempt, the man seated behind the Sea-Doo’s driver lunged toward the bird, clamped his fingers around its flailing body and deposited the pigeon on the riverbank.

Battalion Chief Mark Hahn, who supervised Monday’s exercises, said his station has been getting between three to five calls a day from people who see someone in the river and fear they may be drowning.

“It’s usually kids playing, and people call thinking they’re in trouble,” Hahn said. “In this kind of water, the difference between being safe and being in trouble can be a matter of seconds.”

Hahn and Capt. Darren Dysart stood amid foam cups, beer cans and other litter on the riverbank while a dozen or so firefighters took turns throwing ropes and reaching for their colleagues in the water.

Dysart has advice for would-be waders, swimmers and kayakers.

“Stay off the river,” he said. “Just stay away from it until it gets back to normal conditions.”

Nearly 6 inches of rain has fallen in Wichita in the first five days of August. Since June 1, the region has seen more than 15 inches of rain. The Arkansas River has risen several feet, and Dysart said it could keep rising.

“We’re not maxed out yet, but we’re getting close,” he said.

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