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Practice Helps Rescuers Tackle Swift Waters

Earl Matthews squatted in the short inflatable skiff Sunday morning, balancing precariously while the icy waters of Sespe Creek streamed past.

Donned in a wet suit, helmet and gloves, he steered the boat toward the center of the fast-moving creek north of Fillmore, simulating the swift-water rescue techniques that saved more than a dozen people trapped in the Ventura River bottom following a flood earlier this month.

“During the rains over the past couple of weeks, we had some chances to use these (rescue techniques) for real,” said Matthews, a sheriff’s sergeant who coordinates the Ventura County search-and-rescue corps.

“All the weather services say we’ve got a lot more rain coming,” he said. “There could be some more later this week.”

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Matthews said the team has three stages of rescuing people from rain-swollen rivers. “We call it reach, throw and go,” he said. “The last-ditch effort is to actually get in the water with the victim.”

The swift-water training, which included more than 40 volunteers from the county search-and-rescue team, had at least one surprise Sunday morning.

When Fillmore volunteer Kelly Johnson took his turn in the small craft, attempting to rescue Robert Loop of Simi Valley, Johnson fell into the creek and had to be pulled to safety.

It was just the sort of exercise that the volunteers were practicing. Search-and-rescue teammates tossed Johnson a lifeline, and he was quickly pulled ashore.

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Mark Smitley, another rescue team coordinator from Fillmore, said he likes to train the volunteer crews as much as five times a year.

“It gets the guys familiar with the environment they’re working in,” said Smitley, a general contractor who helped pluck 13 people from the Ventura River during a series of dramatic rescues earlier this month.

“The currents are so strong that two feet of water moving at 6 m.p.h. can push a vehicle downstream,” he said. “Out of all the things we do, this is the most dangerous. If you make a mistake here, you’re going to get killed.”

Nearby, Ojai firefighter Matthew Berban was helping to set up the next training exercise. Although the 26-year-old has only volunteered on the search-and-rescue team for several months, he looks forward to the challenge.

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“We’re practicing where to place the rope when it’s going downstream,” he said. “And how to anchor yourself so it doesn’t pull you in when they catch it.”


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