Man nearly drowns in closed portion of Kings River in Fresno County

See why getting in the river could be a deadly decision

Swift water rescue team members trained on the Kings River at Kings Canyon National Park's Cedar Grove last week, but because of the heavy spring runoff, there are times when they may not be able to help.
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Swift water rescue team members trained on the Kings River at Kings Canyon National Park's Cedar Grove last week, but because of the heavy spring runoff, there are times when they may not be able to help.

A man in his late 20s was hospitalized after nearly drowning in the Kings River on Friday.

Fresno County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Tony Botti said the condition of the man, who was not named, was unknown.

The near-drowning occurred around 1:45 p.m. near Pine Flat Road Bridge, below Pine Flat Dam and Pine Flat Lake, in an area of the Kings River that is currently closed due to unsafe water levels. The man reportedly tried swimming across the Kings River in this area without wearing a life jacket.

“Once he got halfway, the man began to panic and the strong current swept him away,” Botti said. “As he floated downstream, he grabbed hold of a bush and held on, waiting for rescuers to reach him.”

Cal Fire firefighters were the first to reach him, Botti said. Sheriff deputies also responded by vehicle, helicopter and boat.

“Firefighters tossed throwbags to him, which he was able to grab,” Botti said. “Firefighters pulled him to shore where they found him to be semi-conscious and breathing. A SkyLife helicopter arrived and the air ambulance flew the man to the hospital for treatment.”

Botti stressed that the Kings River remains closed from Pine Flat Dam to the Tulare and Kings County lines, which went into effect June 4.

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“This includes all recreational activity such as: Boating, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, floating, etc.,” Botti said.

The sheriff’s office is patrolling this area during the closure.

“Deputies will strictly enforce this closure and violators will be subject to citations,” Botti said. “This infraction comes with a minimum fine of $225. It has not been determined if the man involved in Friday’s incident will receive a citation.”

The sheriff’s office will be reassessing water levels and river conditions throughout the summer. The river will be reopened to the public once it’s deemed safe.

A man died earlier this month after reportedly trying to “surf” on the Kings River.

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Dangerous river conditions

Botti provided additional information about Kings River dangers, including that the water temperature is cold and can cause hypothermia, which can quickly lead to exhaustion and unconsciousness.

Increased water releases can result in numerous public safety hazards for floaters and swimmers. Riverbanks can erode and lead to trees falling into the river.

“Downed trees create strainers, which is where turbulent water flows through the tree,” Botti said. “A person caught in a strainer can quickly find themselves pinned against the tree or even swept underneath it. It is extremely difficult to rescue yourself from a strainer and typically requires emergency help from trained rescue personnel.”

When swimming in areas that are open to the public, Botti provided some tips: “Wear a life jacket, stay out of the water if you’re not an experienced swimmer, and do not mix alcohol and swimming. Alcohol causes swimmers to fatigue faster than normal and can create dangerous situations.”

And keep an eye on children at all times.

“In less than a minute,” he said, “they can slip into the water and be put at risk of injury or death.”

Warming temperatures have increased the snow melt and contributed to higher river flows on the San Joaquin below Friant Dam, seen Friday, May 31, 2019.

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Carmen George is a features and news reporter for The Fresno Bee. Her stories have been recognized with Best of the West, George F. Gruner, and McClatchy President’s awards, and nine first or second place awards from the California News Publishers Association. She has a passion for sharing people’s stories to highlight issues and promote greater understanding.