By LIBBY CLUETT
PALO PINTO COUNTY – The Brazos River Authority and area officials urge people to take caution while navigating the county’s water or terrain this summer. And their concerns are seemingly validated by several deaths, including some in the past two years, in which families lost loved ones who were participating in outdoors activities.
Palo Pinto County is approaching the second anniversary of the death of Bureau of Land Management Firefighter Caleb Hamm, who died July 7, 2011, of heat stroke while battling one of the county’s many wildfires. His family continues to try to raise awareness of the need for policy change to prevent similar deaths from heat stroke.
In one year’s time the county had four drowning deaths in its lakes, including one at Lake Palo Pinto and three at Possum Kingdom Lake, where lake levels are over 80-to-100 feet deep.
Over the past five years, there have been six drowning deaths at PK Lake, according to the BRA.
The BRA has several concerns for lake-users’ safety over the Fourth of July holiday, as well as for the hot, dry summer ahead.
“Safety is always our first concern,” said Public Information Officer Judi Pierce.
“With water levels lower, hazards exist that are not always apparent,” she added of lakes, like PK Lake, where the level is 9.7 feet below maximum capacity, and Lake Granbury, which is down by 7 feet and nearing its lowest level.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning ranks fifth among the leading causes of unintentional injury death in the United States. Among the CDC statistics, nearly 80 percent of people who die from drowning are males and children ages 1 to 4 have the highest drowning rates.
Some factors that contribute to drowning are: lack of swimming ability, lack of supervision, failure to wear life jackets, alcohol use and seizure disorders.
The CDC research shows the following most helpful when it comes to drowning:
• Take formal swimming lessons to help reduce the risk of drowning, especially in children ages 1 to 4.
• Learn CPR – CPR performed by bystanders had been shown to save lives and improve outcomes in drowning victims.
• Life jackets can reduce risk – potentially, half of all boating deaths might be prevented with the use of life jackets.
Health and hydration
Pierce said visitors’ health is also a concern, especially when alcohol in combined with boating, swimming or any activity in the hot sun.
“While open containers of alcohol are allowed on boats in Texas, alcohol many times causes those out of doors to become dehydrated,” she said. “Staying hydrated is very important.”
“Along with drinking alcohol on the water, boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs becomes an issue,” Pierce added. “According to the U.S. Coast Guard, in 2012, alcohol was a contributing factor in 17 percent of the nation’s boating fatalities.”
In the past five years, she said the BRA has recorded 15 arrests over the July 4 holiday.
The BRA’s concerns – as well as numerous county residents who saw the 2011 fire season – go beyond water safety.
“Finally, wildfire is always a concern – especially during drought conditions. During normal weather conditions, fires are allowed in BRA’s campsites with fire ring or grills. However, in an effort to avoid devastating wildfires, outdoor burning may be prohibited should the county declared a burn ban.
“Before you visit the area, your best bet is to first check to see if there is a burn ban. We’ve seen what wildfire can do to this area and urge everyone to use extreme caution with outdoor cooking and disposing of cigarettes.”
Currently, Palo Pinto County is under a burn ban because of dry conditions. Unless the ban is elevated to exclude campfires, which it could be, people can use fire for cooking purposes, but cannot burn brush piles.
Starting any fire outdoors in the county’s current conditions is risky and individuals can minimize the risk by thoroughly wetting the ground around a campfire, for at least 8 feet, and having water readily on hand in case a spark ignites grass or debris.
While there are no unusual water-related issues for swimmers, Pierce said, “Everyone should be aware that waterborne illnesses can be contracted in any surface water. Everyone should avoid stagnant areas of water.”
For more information on waterborne illnesses, visit the BRA website on the topic, at http://www.brazos.org/Waterborne-Illness.asp.
Who to call at PK Lake
If there is an emergency, always call 911, but for information on lake issues or other non-emergency needs during weekends and holidays, Pierce said people can call the Palo Pinto County Sheriffs Department at (940) 659-2085. She said the dispatcher will get the caller in contact with a lake ranger if that is necessary.
More BRA tips
Here are some additional tips from the BRA on staying safe during the holiday celebrations:
• Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of fluids to help your body keep up with moisture you lose due to perspiration. Don’t wait until you are thirsty to drink. During heavy exercise in hot weather you should drink two-to-four glasses of liquid an hour. Avoid beverages with alcohol or large amounts of sugar. These can cause you to lose more body fluid.
• Use sunscreen. Sunburns can limit a body’s ability to cool itself and damages skin. Cover exposed skin with a sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher before going out. And don’t forget to use sun block on the kids as well.
• Know the symptoms of heat stroke, including: hot, dry skin; nausea; confusion; throbbing headache; and a rapid, strong pulse, among others. Heat stroke is a dangerous condition that can cause permanent disability or death, and you should seek medical care immediately if you suspect you or someone else is suffering from it.
• Supervise children at all times around water. It only takes a moment for a child to slip beneath the surface. If a young one is in the water, an adult should be nearby watching, available at all moments if trouble arises.
• Stick to designated swimming areas. The Brazos River Authority has set aside swimming areas with markers to keep people and watercraft well apart. Going beyond these areas, you not only run the risk of getting closer to boating activity, you also may get out into areas with currents you would not find in the designated areas.