14 dead, one still missing after busiest year in Kern River history

Search and Rescue saw a record number of call outs
Posted at 7:32 PM, Sep 25, 2017
and last updated 2017-09-25 22:32:43-04

The end of summer 2017 marks one of the deadliest season's in Kern River history.

14 lives were lost to the waters and one -- Juan Torrez -- still missing.

"We haven't been able to locate him, he's been missing since June 3," Sergeant Zack Bittle with Kern County Search and Rescue said.

The previous record number of deaths was set in 1986. That year, 15 people lost their lives in the river.

Search and Rescue crews have been on nearly 225 call-outs since January 2017 -- a new record for the group of unpaid volunteers that spend thousands of hours dedicated to helping those in need.

"Every day I'm off, every hour I'm off I'm doing some sort of SAR mission or SAR work," Search and Rescue volunteer Brian Baskin said.

The previous record number of call-outs was in 2011. Volunteers responded to a total of 105 calls.

SERIES: The Kern River: An Inside Look

The Bakersfield Search and Rescue team alone has been on over 100 calls since January. In 2016, they had less than 50.

Sergeant Bittle estimates thousands of hours were spent on river rescues across the county. Those numbers aren't counted until the end of the year.

Search and Rescue has been preparing for the season since they saw early signs of trouble in March after Rita Bello went missing.

"We started examining what the river flow was at that point versus what it was in 2016," Bittle said. "We knew we were in for a big year. We were seeing record flows in March."

The record flows were due to the record snow pack in the Sierras after an especially active winter California hadn't experienced in quite a while.

RELATED: California's snowpack levels are above average

But the surging waters weren't bad for everyone.

"These are levels we haven't seen since 1983," Co-owner of Whitewater Voyages Luther Stephens said.

This year brought a ruh of tourists to the Kern River Valley, flooding rafting tours and local businesses with eager adventurers.

"Our numbers increased substantially and by the conclusion of this year I'd imagine we'd have taken between 4,000 and 5,000 people down the river," Stephens said.

Keyesville, one of the most popular locations to enter the river, was one of the areas SAR volunteers were called out to most.

RELATED: VIDEO: Kayaker rescued from deadly Kern River in Keyesville

Since 1994, the most common location for river drownings has been Keyesville with a total of 13 drownings, according to Search and Rescue.

Top drowning locations (since 1994):

  • Keyesville - 13
  • Hart Park - 12
  • Lake Ming Campground - 11
  • Sandy Flar Campground - 9
  • Upper Richbar Campground - 8

This year, the trend of popular locations continued for volunteers. "They've been extremely busy," Bittle said. "We're hoping next year is not so busy."