Special Report: Dangers lurking beneath Valley Canals

Special Report: Dangers lurking beneath Valley Canals

Diving with the Fresno Fire Department rescue team into deadly canal waters.
Canals criss-cross the region, providing water to growers across the Central Valley. 

All to often, they also end up as the scene of accidents or crimes, when people drive vehicles into them. When that happens, it’s up to a specialized team to spring into action. Their job is to go into that cold, fast moving water, and see who or what is inside those vehicles. Sometimes they end up saving lives or recovering stolen property. But as CBS47’s Diane Tuazon learned first hand, each time they go into those canals, they are risking their lives.

The Fresno Fire Department needs to be prepared to dive in at a moment’s notice. They allowed CBS47 to tag along for some specialized training, to show the risks they face each and every day.  

Canals extend for miles, weaving through the Central Valley. From the surface they look quite peaceful, but what's  happening underneath, keeps Fresno firefighters busy.

While many things end up in the canals, it’s the cars that trigger the most worry for the firefighters that have to go into the water. Many of the cars that end up in canals are dumped there by thieves trying to hide evidence. Other cars end up there when someone accidently loses control and drives into the fast moving water. That’s when the Fresno Fire Department springs into action.

While they are known for battling fires, this team of firefighters are trained to tackle underwater emergencies as well. The Fresno Fire Department says they respond to about 120 water rescue calls a year. 

Between the strong water currents and obstacles such as trash, these rescue divers have to swim through visibility that is very bad. “ We call it black water diving when you can’t see your hand in front of your face, you’re doing everything by feel.”

Firefighters invited CBS47's Diane Tuazon to get in the water for one of their training excursuses to get a feel for what they do. The rescue dive team doesn’t use the normal scuba gear Diane has used in the past. In fact, their equipment is twice as heavy as what divers would normally wear in recreational scuba diving. They also use a special helmet made out of steel and fiber glass that weighs about 20 pounds, not to mention the extra 30 pounds of weights and equipment, like a hammer to break car windows and knife to cut seat belts.

During this dive training, Diane had to find a sunken car and pull the driver out as quickly and safely as possible. After about 10 minutes Diane had pulled her first victim to the surface. Too slow for real life, but not bad for a first attempt.

Next, Diane got to play the victim, a victim decked out in scuba gear. She dove to the sunken vehicle and climbed in and waited. Moments later, a tap on the shoulder and the rescue diver got the door open and brought her to the surface.

But its not just vehicles that end up in the canals. There's also tons of garbage littering the water ways. A more clear picture emerges when the canals are completely drained and you can see how they have become dumping grounds of the city.

While they're drained, scuba divers get a break from water rescues, and the Fresno Irrigation District goes to work, cleaning more than 200,000 acres of dried up canals. It’s an ongoing problem in the Central Valley -- people using the canals as their public dumpster. “Shopping carts, tires, furniture, debris, safes that have been opened and thrown in.” In just 2 hours, they collected 12 shopping carts and 6 old tires, and they still have miles to clean up. “It’s a real problem in this town, the debris that gets thrown into canals.”

And sadly, unwanted animals are dumped there too. “They just shoved them into the canals and we have to clean them up.”

The Fresno Irrigation District has a budget of $100,000 but the funds are quickly drying up while the problem is getting worse. The Fresno Irrigation District sends about 7 workers to do the job. They start cleaning once the canals are shut off for the season all the way until March. All of that junk posing dangers for rescue divers has to be removed to protect them from getting trapped by debris. The 7 workers are busy cleaning when they should be working on construction jobs throughout the city. If only people would stop using the canal as a trash bin.

Thank you to the Fresno Fire Department for taking CBS47 along on their training. They are the only Type 1 Water Rescue Team in California with trucks that are fully equipped with commercial diving system and they are ready to be deployed to any other state in the country if needed. Fresno is lucky to have them!

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