Fire districts start program to prevent drownings on Oregon’s Sandy River

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Since 2019, seven people have drowned in the Sandy, a river that Corbett Fire Chief Rick Wunsch describes as “dangerous.”

“The Sandy is known for its soft sand, and swift and fast currents,” Wunsch said.

Gresham Fire Department purchased an aluminum-based wave runner to assist in shallow water rescues

Gresham Fire Department

Now Corbett and Gresham’s fire districts are collaborating on an effort to reduce those drownings on the popular river, which runs through Multnomah and Clackamas counties.

Both fire districts share a common border of almost 16 miles along the river, so they often respond to water rescue calls together.

Gresham Fire purchased a new aluminum-based jet ski that will be available for the first time this year. It will allow for a faster response, especially in shallow water, which occurs in the summer

“It’s a game-changer for responding on the Sandy River,” Wunsch said.

Corbett Fire purchased a sonar device that can identify bodies in the murky water of Sandy.

“We’ve had a hard time, in the past, finding victims that have gone underwater and we have been looking for a tool that would help us do that,” Wunsch said.

This is the first time an AquaEye device has been purchased by an emergency response agency in Oregon, according to the manufacturer.

Of the seven drownings that happened between Oxbow State Park and Dabney State Park in the past three years, Wunsch said that all but one were not wearing life jackets. In response, Oregon State Parks worked with the fire districts to expand a free life jacket program at Dabney State Park.

Wunsch also said a significant number of victims were Latino. “We got some new signage out there that is in both English and in Spanish, to help promote that message,” he said.

As temperatures warm, Wunsch is expecting an increase in visitors to the Sandy River.

“This high water that we’ve had this spring is certainly going to change the river a little bit,” Wunsch said.

He encourages people to go to the river and have a great time, but reminds visitors to be water safe, wear life jackets and keep an eye on one another.

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