Waco firefighters have responded to calls about eight people in the swollen Brazos River this week, and they are continuing to warn residents and visitors to stay away from local waterways while flooding exacerbates regular water safety concerns.

“Right now, the river is pretty swollen and that’s when it gets pretty dangerous,” said Waco firefighter Justin Hewitt, who has been part of the department’s swift water rescue team for four years. “Most people don’t know how strong the water really is, how fast the current is actually going and what is underneath the water because it’s so deep right now.”

The Waco Fire Department’s swift water rescue team responded to three water rescue calls between Saturday and Wednesday. A total of eight people were reported to be in need of assistance from firefighters, primarily after the current pushed them down the river faster than expected.

Most recently, crews responded to a man who was spotted in a boat that had lost power at about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, after he launched his vessel in Bosque County. Waco fire Capt. Adam Mary said crews spotted him on the Brazos River, between the Lake Shore Drive bridge and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard bridge.

“He most likely used more gas than he was anticipating because of the current and he ended up running out of fuel,” Mary said. “Once he ran out of fuel, he said he had a very difficult time going down the river after that.”

Crews used the department’s new fire rescue boat to tow the disabled boat to the Cameron Park East boat ramp.

On Saturday, officials towed four men from the Brazos who had gotten in the water on an inflatable swan-shaped pool toy.

Fire crews responded to Cameron Park near Redwood Shelter. They reported the men did not come ashore at the request of Waco police and said they were trying to get to Buzzard Billy’s restaurant downstream. A rescue boat was able to tow them to shore, where police spoke with the men. They were not injured, arrested or ticketed.

On Sunday, officials responded to a call about three kayaks stranded in the Brazos under the La Salle Avenue Bridge. By the time crews arrived, the three people on the kayaks had made it to shore safely, but one kayak was lost.

Swift current

Waco fire Battalion Chief Patrick Kerwin said the group had gotten in the water near McLane Stadium and were unaware of the swift current. The kayakers were also unaware of the low-water dam just downstream, where the third kayak likely was lost, Kerwin said.

“It is always best to plan your trips and understand the water and weather conditions,” Kerwin said. “You can look at the water and see it’s moving fast, but you don’t understand how fast it’s moving and how fast that undercurrent is moving that make the Brazos hazardous in general.”

With river safety in mind, Hewitt and other swift water rescue crew members went to the Brazos on Wednesday to check the current and the water level. The Brazos River flow rate was at 8,387 cubic meters per second Wednesday afternoon, with tree debris floating in the river.

“Even people with experience on the water know how dangerous this water can be,” Hewitt said. “We are constantly training and training in every situation we can get the boat to, because every day, every person is different, so you never know what can happen.”

The Brazos was at 21 feet deep Wednesday, about 6 feet below flood stage, according to the National Weather Service. It is forecast to remain at about the same level through Sunday.

“My best advice to people would be to stay off the water,” Hewitt said. “Most all the Corps of Engineer parks have boat ramps that are closed, but there are private ramps that are open. We just ask that people are smart and plan.”

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Kristin Hoppa has been covering public safety and breaking news for the Tribune-Herald since January 2016. She worked in Northwest Missouri covering crime-related issues before her move to Central Texas. She is a University of Kansas graduate.

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