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Billings firefighters urge public to avoid Yellowstone River recreation during high water

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Posted at 3:20 PM, Jun 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-09 17:20:51-04

BILLINGS – This month’s rainfall, warming temperatures, and consequent snow melt, has been the perfect recipe for a fast, high-flowing Yellowstone River.

With that in mind, the Billings Fire Department is urging our community to refrain from recreating on the Yellowstone.

Within this past month, the river flow has increased 10-fold, going from 3,000 Cubic Feet Per Second (CFS) during the first week of May, to 34,000 CFS the morning of June 8.

“At that rate, there’s a lot of force behind that river, and the river itself is swollen beyond its normal banks, and so it’s starting to pick up debris and take things into the current with it,” explained City of Billings Fire Department Engineer Mark Rickbeil.

Rickbeil acknowledges the appearance of the water can be deceiving, and it can be hard to understand the power and nature of the water.

Rickbeil uses a basketball analogy to describe 34,000 CFS.

He said to imagine 34,000 basketballs flowing by you every second.

Every cubic foot of water contains about 7.5 gallons, and each gallon weighs just over 8 lbs.

“So, every cubic foot is 56 pounds of pressure pushing against you. So if you get caught up in the river and tangled up in one of the strainers, it’s incredibly difficult to free yourself and do any sort of self-rescue,” said Rickbeil.

One of the fire department’s biggest concerns is the area below the Interstate 90 Yellowstone River project.

Natural river debris is gathering at the project’s temporary pillars and bridges, creating a river strainer, or narrow path for water flow, which can be a threat to anyone floating the river.

“It’s restricted widthwise, but also height. It’s a much lower clearance now and if we see the river rise because of warming temperatures or more snow melt or heavy rain fall, the ability to pass under that bridge becomes more difficult,” Rickbeil said.

Since the Billings Fire Department implemented its water rescue craft program in 2018, there has been an average of 10 rescues every summer.

That number is concerning as this weekend is forecast for warmer temperatures, which doesn’t only mean rising river levels from snowmelt, but it might tempt people to get in the water to cool off.

Wednesday’s river water temperature is hovering in the lower 50-degree Fahrenheit range.

“Within 15 minutes, in that water temperature, you start to lose dexterity within your extremities and so your ability to grasp onto an object to help save you, whether it be rescue throw rope that we deploy, or even a limb that you’re trying to grab onto as you move past something, it just becomes more and more difficult while you’re in that water,” said Rickbeil.

Any recreational activities on the river should include a life jacket, which Rickbeil said the fire department has witnessed a surprising number of people go without.

“If people are out here, we really encourage them to use a U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket, preferably one that’s designed for white water situations,” he said.

Information on finding the appropriate life vest can be found on the U.S. Coast Guard website.

Another helpful resource is BoatUS.org [boatus.org].