Health and Wellness

Heat wave fueling drownings, boating accidents in Lane

CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO / DEXTER LAKE

Over the last month, water rescue operations teams in Lane County have been working overtime to fight the needless wave of drownings and boating-related deaths. The recent heat has fueled an increase in these fatalities – in Lane County alone, 11 water-related death investigations have been conducted this year. 

“Heat waves can exacerbate drownings and accidents,” said Tom Conning, Portland District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesperson. “More people are out on the water, trying to cool off and they don’t always wear life jackets. Men, especially between 17-65 years of age, are the worst about wearing life jackets due to several things, including their arrogance about swimming abilities.”  

The Portland District Regulatory Branch of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has jurisdiction over the state of Oregon, southern Washington ports and restoration projects in the Columbia River estuary. 

The Oregon State Marine Board (OSMB) reported 19 boating-related fatalities in 2021 and the Oregon Health Authority recorded 57 drownings in natural waters in 2020, which is a 160% increase from 2019 (35 drownings). They say life jackets may have prevented many of these deaths.

Even when the air temperature is hot, water temperatures in the Pacific Northwest can still cause involuntary gasping and hypothermia, according to Melissa Rinehart, Natural Resources Management Chief.

“It’s already too late if you fall into the water unexpectedly without a life jacket, even if you know how to swim,” said Rinehart. “We want everyone to enjoy their time at Army Corps parks and head home safely. We have over 20 life jacket loaner stations for those who don’t own a life jacket or forget to bring one.”

Recreational boating-related incidents and deaths are beginning to trend upward with the growth in paddling activities which include kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards. 2020 was a record high number of fatalities, and OSMB staff still note the fatality rate remained higher than the ten-year average. 

“We take safety so seriously, it’s written into our mission statement,” said Ashley Massey, public information officer for OSMB, the agency that serves recreational boaters in the state. “It makes you wonder, would 11 of the victims who weren’t wearing life jackets have survived if they’d been wearing one? For instance, the U.S. Coast Guard’s nationwide recreational boating statistics from 2020 show nearly 86% of drowning victims would have survived if they’d worn a properly fitting life jacket.”

Portland District reservoirs saw three drownings in 2021 at Fern Ridge, Foster and Fall Creek reservoirs. The district averages more than four million visitors per year at 133 recreation sites across 18 dams and reservoirs in Oregon and Washington. 

“Life jackets have the same use as the seatbelt in your car,” Sgt. Tom Speldrich said. “We really ask that anyone recreating check to see the list of hazards in the waterway, create a float plan and educate themselves about the conditions in the area. Life jackets make all the difference.”