Backcountry drownings already high this season

Fire District 5 stresses safety, avoiding risky waterways

Kelly Sullivan

An above average number of people have drowned in Sky Valley rivers so far this season.

Emergency response officials stress the critical role lifejackets can play in those moments. Snohomish County Fire District 5 reports temperature, river currents and unseen hazards “overcome even the strongest swimmer’s ability to save themselves.”

“It is very simple things that kill people here, and they don’t look dangerous when you are standing on the bank looking at them,” said District 5 Chief Merlin Halverson.

All of the deaths that have happened this year were preventable, he said. Halverson believes more people using the waterways may have to do with the increase in incidents.

Halverson said people are also often unaware of the dangers they may encounter. Mixing recreation and alcohol isn’t a good idea either. So far there have been two rescues that his staff was dispatched to within the boundaries of the fire district. One was successful, and the other was not.

“Typically, by the time we get there it’s too late,” Halverson said.

Recreating on rivers during the late spring and summer seasons is notoriously risky, according to the fire district. Halverson said swimming around the confluence of the Sultan and Skykomish rivers is a bad spot because of the undertow.

Monroe man Junior Silva was swimming with a friend on Memorial Day at Eagle Falls, between Index and Baring, according to an Instagram post by his sister. She wrote the current was too strong, and her brother was carried down river; his friend made it to shore. Silva’s body was recovered the following Saturday.

Halverson also urges caution around the wet terrain at Wallace Falls State Park. Visitors ignore the signs warning the pubic to stay a safe distance from ledges, and sometimes slip off. There is never any good reason to go over that way, he said.

A number of lives were lost in the park last summer, and Bothell woman Sarah A. Zimmerman’s body was found at the base of the Lower Wallace Falls in late April. She is believed to have been hiking alone, but no one is sure exactly how she fell in.

Monroe woman Jazmine Weitlauf was out with friends near Cedar Ponds in early April, when she slipped and fell in. Her body was found weeks later.

Once in the water the body will become debilitated because of how cold it is, Halverson said. People can become incapacitated more quickly than they realize.

He recalled an incident from his career where a couple was floating a river together. The woman was lighter and went over a log in their path. The man’s feet were sucked under the obstruction and he eventually was worn out trying to fight to keep his torso above the surface.

Halverson believes a flotation device could have saved his life, keeping him afloat once his energy was sapped, he said.

Better weather can lead to negative assumptions, according to Snohomish County Fire District 7 spokesperson Heather Chadwick.

“We did get some very nice warm days early on and sometimes people under estimate the river’s power or don’t understand how their body will react to the freezing cold temperatures,” according to an email from Chadwick.

The conditions seen in the area’s rivers are common for this time of year. The flows are “higher, faster and colder in the spring and early summer” because of snow melt, according to Chadwick.

The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office sent out a news release earlier this year stating not only is the public at risk, but first responders as well.

“Response to backcountry rescue and recovery efforts can be extremely dangerous and put rescue personnel and volunteers at risk,” the release states. “Swimming in Snohomish County rivers, especially near waterfalls, is not recommended due to swift currents, hidden snags/drop-offs and cold water temperatures, even for those who consider themselves to be strong swimmers.”

Monroe and Sultan’s fire districts have loaner lifejacket programs, Halverson said, and people are invited to take theirs, float down into Monroe and drop the equipment off at the Fire District 7 station. One of his staff will come pick them up.

Fire District 5 reports people can come in any time between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. daily. If no one is in the station, they will be back shortly. People can also call ahead and arrange a time to pick up the lifejackets.

“Please wear a life jacket,” according to Fire District 5. “Especially when boating or floating with kids. Your example may help them learn that being safe doesn’t get in the way of having a great time.”


Photos by Kelly Sullivan: Visitors swim and enjoy the beach at the Big Eddy Skykomish River boat access in Snohomish County on Thursday, July 12.


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