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Water Rescue Teams Prove Worthy during California Storms

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LAKE FOREST, Calif. -- The call for help came as the worst of this week's pounding rains hit Southern California: five cars, including an ambulance, were trapped in roof-deep water with a baby and disabled woman among the passengers.

When the Orange County Fire Authority's rescuers arrived, they found the drivers overwhelmed by the fast-moving current. The occupants were shocked at how quickly the rising water had trapped them in the middle of a suburban landscape choked with freeways and business parks.

It's a scene that plays out every time it rains heavily in Southern California, where so-called swift water rescue teams have evolved to avert disaster in a desert landscape that can turn a trickle of water into a death trap in just minutes. Denuded hillsides from frequent wildfires also contribute to flash flooding and debris flows.

The specialized firefighter crews were created after a man drowned in 1980 while trying to rescue a 12-year-old boy being swept down the swollen Los Angeles River. The man's fiancee campaigned for better rescue training and coordination, which led to the creation of the teams.

Los Angeles and Orange counties, and many other local jurisdictions, now train routinely in the Kern and Colorado rivers and in the aqueduct in Northern California. There, they practice white water river rescue techniques that they use to save lives in the gritty network of flood control channels, concrete-lined rivers and water-logged roadways.

"Our urban waterways are designed to do one thing and that's move the water in a safe and effective way from the mountains to the ocean, so they're designed to be smooth and slippery," said Battalion Chief Rob Patterson Jr. of the Orange County Fire Authority.

"That doesn't set itself up well for getting people out, especially when you're talking about 35 mph water."

In a big storm, less than six inches of swift-moving water can knock down an adult, said Chuck Hawkins, a firefighter on one of the three four-man Orange County teams on call this week.

Hawkins and other teammates rescued the people in the swamped cars and also plucked a man off the roof of his van when he got stuck Wednesday in a flash flood near a recent wildfire burn area.

They've also kept busy dealing with curious children who venture too close to the water.

On Wednesday, they had back-to-back calls for children playing in a flood control channel and a group of 10 to 15 teens who took a raft out on turbulent waters.

On Tuesday, firefighters on similar teams with Los Angeles County helped rescue two boys, ages 10 and 12, from a flood control channel in Montclair, in San Bernardino County.

Swift water rescues can be frustrating, however.

Late Thursday, authorities in Orange called off the search for a teenage boy who was believed to be swept away by the raging Santa Ana River, which was filled with 40 times its normal volume of water.

The search began when a young man who was pulled from the water's edge said his friend was missing in the river. Swift water teams scoured 11 miles of the river, from Orange to the ocean, while helicopters equipped with heat-seeking radar looked from above.

When they found no sign of the boy, they interviewed the young man and determined his account was "weak and cannot be substantiated," said fire Capt. Ed Engler.

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Associated Press Writer Thomas Watkins in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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