The urgent message to “stay out, stay alive” from the Kern River could not have arrived on Friday at a more pressing time — since January, already two people are considered missing after the water swept them away and eight people died last year from treacherous flows.
“This is the highest I’ve seen (the Kern River),” Kern County Sheriff’s search and rescue Sgt. Paul Saldana said. “And, I’ve lived here all my life.”
Friday’s annual procedure to update signs in English and Spanish at the mouth of the Kern River Valley’s canyon noting how many people have died in the Kern River takes on an extra meaning this year as a record snowpack drapes mountains and melts into local channels. But, despite the now-faded sign changed from 317 to 325 lives lost since 1968, there’s still a sense that only so much can be done to deter people from jumping into the tempting waters.
That’s not for lack of trying: The county has many precautions in place to ward local residents and newcomers away from Kern’s deceiving waters. The Kern County Search and Rescue team conducts regular rescue training sessions and patrols the river’s length, Saldana said. Signs warning of the river’s dangers are placed along regular intervals, telling people to keep away, he added.
County staff patrolling the area distribute flyers — in both English and Spanish — which say “use your head or lose your life.” Saldana added county staff will inform people ignoring these warnings about how many lives the Kern River has claimed, its dangers and how water may appear smooth on its surface but dangerous swells and debris lurk underneath.
District 3 Supervisor Jeff Flores said in a phone interview that the county approved TV ads telling outsiders about the river’s dangers. Those warnings are present in L.A. County, which means the messages will reach San Bernardino, Orange, Riverside and Ventura counties, he added.
The ads cost about $100,000 and will last until Labor Day, Flores said. He added he would also consider buying advertisements in counties north of Kern County as well.
“There’s all kinds of dangers with currents and twigs and the water is dirty,” Flores said. “Be very careful.”
KCSO spokeswoman Lori Meza noted news media in L.A. County receive news releases about the Kern River’s dangers sent by the Sheriff’s Office. If reporters reach out to KCSO, Meza wrote, she’ll do an interview with them — she has already done interviews with the Los Angeles Times and television station KTLA.
“It’s up to them if they report on it,” Meza added in a text.
The agency doesn’t reach out to any one area in California because people come from all over the world to Kern County, Meza wrote. Last year, there were victims from South America, she noted.
KCSO didn’t provide a list of names of the eight people who died in the Kern River last year by The Californian’s print deadline.
Many local residents enjoying Hart Park on Friday knew to stay away from the river, courtesy of the local news media, they said.
“It’s called Killer Kern for a reason,” said Melvin Nolbert, 50.
Nolbert arrived with his family to fish from waters in the park. His grandson reeled in fish after fish, with the family leaving the area with 10 catches. A few residents enjoyed the park Friday afternoon, but none were spotted in the river.
People patrolling the area pointed out how quickly the river’s rising — trees that were once standing fell into the waters 48 hours ago.
These experts also described how frequent and repetitive warnings fall on deaf ears.
They’ve seen a fisherman climbing along the railing of a bridge despite water gushing on it, trying to get back onto dry land. Normally, flows stay about two to three feet under the bridge, but it now has some water on it, said those patrolling the area, who declined to give their names because they’re not authorized to speak to the media.
Last year, medical personnel attempted to resuscitate a man drowning in the Kern River by performing CPR and other medical interventions, they said.
Despite the man lying on the ground dying, people walked right past them and went into the river.
“We’re doing chest compressions on him and it didn’t faze them one bit,” said one of the people who wasn’t authorized to talk to reporters.
Experts recommend noting what each person in a group is wearing and not waiting to call 911 when something goes awry. People have waited to call 911 about 20 to 45 minutes after a person last slipped under the water’s surface.
“At that point there is no rescue ... it’s a recovery at that point,” one expert said.