Orange County fire crew charges north, helping sodden Tulare County

The worst should have been over. The Loftis family home had barely escaped the ferocious flooding of the Tule River, which devastated many others early Friday morning in this community in the Sierra foothills.

Saturday was to be spent cleaning, regrouping and breathing. But Sherry and Ed Loftis’ son spotted one of the family’s six cats stuck atop a flatbed truck that had become an island on the remade banks of the Tule.

Donald Stinson, 52, went to rescue the stranded cat, only to quickly need to save himself as the quicksand along the river quickly sucked him in. The tall man in the Dodgers camo cap soon got his legs stuck in slime – as two neighbors went for help.

Good fortune (and a plan hatched by the Tulare County Fire Department) had dispatched an Orange County Fire Authority fast water rescue team to the scene minutes earlier. Before Stinson could sink any further, half a dozen firefighters threw a lifeline at him, built a makeshift platform and began digging the successful cat rescuer out of a suction pit he didn’t have. was not at all sure that he would escape.

A Swift Water Rescue Teammaids Kirsten Franks, MyKenzie Franks and Tracie Franks from their flooded property in Exeter.

A fast water rescue team from the State Office of Emergency Services and a team from Orange County rescue Kirsten Franks, MyKenzie Franks and Tracie Franks from their flooded property in Exeter.

(Tomas Ovalle / For the times)

Soaked, sweating profusely and a little embarrassed by all the attention, Stinson thanked firefighter Jason Trevino, captain Chris Stevens and the others who brought him back to solid ground.

“I’m just grateful they’re here,” said Stinson, a cook at a hospital. “It looked rather dark. Fifty-two, and you die right there on your own property? It’s quite sad. It gives a whole new meaning to life right now.

The rescue by the 17-man Orange County crew epitomized the work being done throughout California by rescue teams deployed by the State Office of Emergency Services. They performed at least 100 rescues over the weekend, amid the latest storm in the state’s wettest winter in recent memory.

In Monterey County, a group of firefighters had to rescue some of their own on Saturday after their boat capsized on the Pajaro River, a state Office of Emergency Services official said.

The Orange County Rapid Water Rescue Team pulls their Zodiac out of a flooded area after rescuing a

The Orange County Rapid Water Rescue Team pulled their Zodiac from a flooded area after rescuing a family from their flooded property.

(Tomas Ovalle / For the times)

The Orange County group headed north on Thursday, bringing a Zodiac-style boat and enough gear for two weeks on their own. They began their work around Merced, then moved south Friday and Saturday into Tulare County, where they snatched two stranded 90-year-olds from a home in Cutler, evacuated a family of four from Exeter ( with their ungrateful English Bulldog), before extracting Stinson from the mud of the Tule River.

The Southern California team is expected to be deployed through at least Monday and for two weeks — a schedule determined in part by Orange County’s own emergency operations guidelines.

After two nights in hotels, OC firefighters pulled in a 24-hour shift on Saturday and expected to camp overnight so they could stay closer to the Tule and other locations that remained at risk from of a new weather front and rapid snowmelt, warm rain was likely to unleash.

Uncertainty and changing circumstances are the rule for swiftwater rescue teams. The group’s previous missions in Orange County have taken them anywhere from picking up stranded guests atop rides at Knott’s Berry Farm to the mountains where injured hikers have become stranded after life-threatening falls. in danger.

On the first day of this week, they helped evacuate a community of farm workers, using their boat to reunite two nonagenarians trapped by floodwaters with their families. On Saturday morning, the boat delivered the Franks family and their three dogs – including a growling bulldog – from a house surrounded by water.

The Tulare River runs through Springville and washed away the foundation of this house.  A living water

The Tulare River raged through Springville and washed away the foundation of this house.

(Tomas Ovalle / For the times)

As the sun shone for much of the day Saturday, their hosts in Tulare County asked the OC group to recheck homes in Springville, where the Tule River flowed directly into several homes Friday morning.

William Woodmansee, a retired teacher, walked through two rental houses he owns along the river which had been destroyed by water so powerful it shook large boulders as if they were polystyrene. A neighbor said the chilling echo of rocks slamming together sounded like “two tractor-trailers colliding”.

Bill Woodmansee cries as he describes the damage done to his home and the rentals he owns.  Woodmansee had no flood insurance.

Bill Woodmansee cries as he describes the damage to his home and the rentals he owns. Woodmansee had no flood insurance.

(Tomas Ovalle / For the times)

Woodmansee, 70, said his own uphill home was spared, 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 do without it. Unsure of how he would rebuild, the pensioner said his worries paled in comparison to the burden on others, including one of his tenants – a mother with three jobs – who was unsure where she would be moving.

Water and mud in a flooded house.

Water and mud in a flooded house.

(Tomas Ovalle / For the times)

A tearful Woodmansee nodded to the Orange County crew — led by battalion chiefs Brett Buffington and Jason Sultzer — saying the mere presence of the uniformed crews brought some comfort.

“We have been evacuated twice in the last four years for fires. Hundreds of houses burned down in the last one,” he said. “These first responders come from all over, and they’re just essential to us here.”

After confirming that no one had been stranded near downtown Springville, one of the OC squads ventured across the river. While checking a washed out bridge on Globe Drive, two women came running in, shouting “Help!” »

They pointed to firefighter Trevino, Stevens and their comrades behind some bushes, where Stinson, a cook at the Sierra View District Hospital, was armpit-deep in mud. The water and mud effectively created a vacuum.

As Stinson’s anxiety seemed to skyrocket, Trevino – staring at his cap – blasted him: “Dodgers, are you kidding me?” That may have eased the tension, as Stevens added: “Half an hour at the most and we’ll get you out of here. You will have 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 some leeway. With a rope wrapped under his armpits, the firefighters freed him.

Don Stinson thanks firefighter Jason Trevino for pulling him out of the deep mud as battalion commander Jason Sultzer looks on

Don Stinson thanks firefighter Jason Trevino for pulling him out of the mud as Battalion Commander Jason Sultzer looks on.

(Tomas Ovalle / For the times)

Looking sheepish, Stinson said, “Really, it’s an honor to have them help me out like this.”

They potentially had a long night, and possibly another week in the field ahead of them, but the OC firefighters seemed content.

“When it came to the job, they knew what to do and we know their abilities,” Buffington said. “And the job is done.”

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