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Water rescues increase during pandemic

Lance Cowart
Two children were rescued Jan. 10 in Pismo Beach.

King tides and large breaking waves on the Central Coast have prompted several water rescues over the past week, but Cal Fire officials said it’s not just current beach conditions contributing to an increase in water rescues.

A high surf warning was in effect for Central Coast beaches Monday, with breaking waves ranging from 15-21 feet.

Cal Fire Pismo Beach Battalion Chief Paul Lee said a man was swept off the jetty rocks in Morro Bay Monday morning, and two children swimming in Pismo Beach were rescued Sunday, clinging onto pier pillars until help arrived. 

“Over the last couple of days we’ve seen the typical ‘my skill set isn’t there, I’ve gone out in the water, now I want to come in,’ and they are just unable to do so,” Lee said. 

Lee said the pandemic is drawing more visitors to the Central Coast, and that water rescue calls have doubled in the past year.

“They went from 20 [in 2019] to over 40 and we saw our safety contacts go from about 3,000 to over 6,000," Lee said. "So what that's telling us, is that we just have a lot more people on the beach—with more people, more and more instances occur.”

When high surf warnings are in effect, Lee urges only expert swimmers and surfers should be in the water. Although the unseasonably warm weather continues to draw people to the beaches, Lee cautions that lifeguards are not staffed during the winter months the way they are in the summer. 

“[The lack of winter lifeguards] falls upon our fire department," Lee said. "[Rescue crews] been very busy over the weekend as well as into today and we anticipate them being busy over the next couple of days.”

Lee said for those who do find themselves in distress in the water, the main thing is not to panic. 

“We look for a raised arm above your heads," Lee said. "If you’re having a hard time, still kick with your feet and still try to tread water with your left hand but stick that right hand up in the air and that’ll grab someone's attention to dial 9-1-1.”

Lee also warns distressed swimmers against grabbing onto fixed objects like pier pillars, as the wave action can cause your body to bang into them, leading to head injuries, broken bones and cuts from barnacles.

Angel Russell is a former KCBX News reporter who started her career in journalism as a reporter and producer for KREX on Colorado's Western Slope; she later moved to the Central Coast to work for KSBY as weekend anchor and weekday reporter. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, and playing guitar and piano.
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