The hard part should be over. The Loftis family home had barely escaped ferocious flooding from the Tule River, which washed away many others early Friday morning in this community at the foot of the Sierra.
Saturday was supposed to be for cleaning up, regrouping, and taking a breather. But the son of Sherry and Ed Loftis saw one of the family’s six cats stranded on top of a flatbed truck that had become an island on the rebuilt banks of the Tule.
Donald Stinson, 52, went to save the stranded cat, only to need quick rescue as he was quickly sucked into the quicksand along the river. The big man in the camouflage Dodgers cap soon had his legs locked in mud as two female neighbors ran for help.
Good fortune (and a plan devised by the Tulare County Fire Department) had brought a quick water rescue team from the Orange County Fire Authority to the scene minutes earlier. Before Stinson could sink any deeper, half a dozen firefighters tossed him a lifeline, built a makeshift platform and began pulling the successful cat rescuer out of a suction pit he wasn’t sure he could escape.
Drenched, sweating profusely and a little embarrassed by all the attention, Stinson thanked firefighter Jason Treviño, Capt. Chris Stevens and the others for getting him back on dry land.
“I’m thankful they were here,” said Stinson, a hospital cook. “It looked pretty dim. Fifty-two, and you die right there on your own property? That’s pretty sad. This gives new meaning to life right now.”
The rescue by the 17-man crew from Orange County epitomized the work that rescue teams deployed by the state Office of Emergency Services are doing throughout California. They completed at least 100 rescues late this week, in the midst of the last storm of the state’s wettest winter in recent memory.
In Monterey County, a crew of firefighters had to rescue some of their own on Saturday after their boat capsized in the Pajaro River, an official with the state Office of Emergency Services said.
The Orange County group headed north on Thursday, bringing a Zodiac-style boat and enough gear for two weeks on their own. They started their work around Merced, then moved south Friday and Saturday to Tulare County, where they pulled two stranded 90-somethings from a home in Cutler, evacuated a family of four from Exeter (along with their ungrateful English bulldog), before pulling Stinson out of the Tule River slime.
The Southern California squad was expected to deploy through at least Monday and for two weeks, a schedule prompted in part by Orange County’s own emergency operations guidelines.
After two nights in hotels, OC firefighters drew a 24-hour shift Saturday and hoped to camp overnight so they could stay closer to Tule and other places that remained in danger from a new weather front and rapidly melting ice. snow. likely to break out.
Uncertainty and changing circumstances are the rule for swift water rescue teams. The Orange County group’s previous assignments have taken them anywhere from picking up visitors stranded atop rides at Knott’s Berry Farm to the mountainside where injured hikers were stranded after life-threatening falls. life.
On the first day of this week, they helped evacuate a community of farmworkers and used their boat to reunite two flood-struck nonagenarians with their families. On Saturday morning, the boat brought the Franks family and their three dogs, including a snarling bulldog, from a house surrounded by water.
With the sun shining for much of the day Saturday, their Tulare County hosts ordered the OC group to double-check homes in Springville, where the Tule River flowed directly into several homes Friday morning.
William Woodmansee, a retired teacher, walked past two rental houses he owns along the river that had been ruined by water so powerful it hurled large rocks as if they were made of Styrofoam. A neighbor said the eerie echo of rocks crashing into each other sounded “like two trucks colliding.”
Woodmansee, 70-something, said his own home up the river had been saved, but the other two he maintains as income properties would be difficult to repair. The flood insurance had been so high that he and his wife had decided to forego it. Not knowing how he would rebuild, the retiree said his worries pale in comparison to the burden of others, including one of his tenants, a mother who works three jobs, who didn’t know where she would move.
A tearful Woodmansee nodded to the Orange County team, led by battalion chiefs Brett Buffington and Jason Sultzer, saying the mere presence of the uniformed teams brought him some comfort.
“We have been evacuated twice in the last four years because of fires. Hundreds of houses burned in the last one, ”he said. “These first responders come from all over and are critical to us here.”
After confirming that no one had been stranded near downtown Springville, one of the OC squads ventured to the other side of the river. While checking out a washed out bridge on Globe Drive, two women came running up and yelled “Help!”
They pointed firefighter Jason Trevino, Capt. Chris Stevens and their comrades behind some bushes, where Stinson, a cook at the Sierra View District Hospital, was covered up to his armpits in mud. The water and mud effectively created a vacuum.
When Stinson’s anxiety seemed to be spiraling, Trevino, looking at his cap, told him, “Dodgers, are you kidding me?” That may have reduced the tension, as Stevens added: “Half an hour tops and we’ll get him out of here. You’re going to be drinking a cold beer. And a hot shower.
With the help of their Tulare County brethren, the southerners built a platform and dug around Stinson to give him room to maneuver. With a rope tied under his armpits, the firefighters freed him.
Looking embarrassed, Stinson said, “Actually, it’s an honor to be helped like this.”
They had a potentially long night, and perhaps more than a week in the field ahead of them, but the OC firefighters seemed satisfied.
“When it comes to the job, they knew what to do and we know their skills,” Buffington said. “And the work is done.”