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Rescuers warn swimmers to stay out of the deadly Kern River after six drownings

In singing about the Kern River, Merle Haggard put it best: “It’s a mean piece of water, my friend.”

As a heat wave tightens its grip on California, the water in the massive Sierra Nevada snowpack is being squeezed into the state’s rivers and reservoirs, creating dangerous conditions downstream.

On Monday, the Bakersfield Fire Department urged Kern River visitors – especially those from out of town and unfamiliar with the conditions – to keep out.

“The Kern River is hazardous for those not properly trained in special water navigation techniques or not accompanied by trained river guides,” the department said in its precautionary alert. “The sections of the Kern River flowing through metro Bakersfield may look calm and inviting, but the force is shocking, unexpectedly powerful and can overcome the strongest swimmers.”

Six people have drowned in the river so far this year, the agency said. Since 1968, 280 people have drowned in the river, the Bakersfield Fire Department said. Bakersfield first responders have performed 17 swift water rescues in the last month.

There have also been drownings this year in the Tule, San Joaquin, Sacramento and Kings rivers as the snow has continued to melt, authorities said.

California’s snowpack is past its peak melting period and has begun to slow but the danger remains, said David Rizzardo, a water supply forecaster with the state Department of Water Resources. The water flow down the Kings River in particular is the highest it’s been since March, he said.

joseph.serna@latimes.com

For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna on Twitter.

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