MISSOULA – Even trained, professional rescuers are using the utmost condition around the flood-swollen Clark Fork River this week.
But the high water is also giving Missoula firefighters and their colleagues from Billings a unique chance to hone their skills to respond in one of the most dangerous places in be in Montana right now.
This time of the year Missoula firefighters must leave fear on the shoreline as they plunge into the Clark Fork River to save people who only have minutes to live — and with waters running above flood stage this week it’s the real-time scenario they don’t take lightly.
Conditions on the Clark Fork can be demanding anytime, but especially now with the river running about three times its normal flow. That presented an extra challenge Thursday, as the Missoula Swiftwater Rescue team was joined by Billings firefighters, who were looking to share skills and learn more about using Rescue Water Craft (RWC).
"Yes, it’s actually really good. A little more than what we intended for. Sometimes we like to hone our skills when the water’s a little bit lower. So today we had to dial back some of our training just to make sure that we’re safe for ourselves while we’re performing these scenarios," said Missoula firefighter Mike Thurlow.
Those situations range from using a rescue swimmer and the RWCs to save someone coming downstream, to searching for someone who’s has disappeared in the river. The speed the "victims" were going downriver made that a real challenge on Thursday while also showing how dangerous the rivers are right now.
Not only do the rescuers have just seconds to catch up to someone in the water, but the RWCs have to be maneuverable, and under constant headway against the strong current.
"Well, what’s fantastic about this program is that they’re well established. We’re at the infant stages of coming up with a rescue program for water incidents in Billings. And since they’ve got a well-established program it’s great to come down here and work with guys who have the experience and help give us some great pointers," observed Billings firefighter Greg Roper.
With help from the Whitewater Rescue Institute, the firefighters were able to get a better feel for swift water hazards, and especially the adaptability needed on the rivers in these conditions — and that applies whether its the Clark Fork, or the Yellowstone rivers.
"We have incidents where the people may get stranded on an island and RWCs are great for getting in the water quickly, getting to the patient quickly," Roper said.
"And another thing is this time of the year with the high water you’re dealing with a lot of debris and lot of branches, trees that are coming down and it’s nice to have something which is maneuverable to get around those obstacles," Roper added.
The Missoula Fire Department’s Swiftwater Team keeps equipment staged at McCormack Park so it’s centralized along the Missoula waterfront. But equipment can be deployed quickly upstream or downstream as needed.