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The Feather River from Rock Creek Dam upstream looks like severe drought conditions have hit. In reality, PG&E workers lowered the gates at the dam allowing more water to flow downstream in order to allow Plumas County Search and Rescue teams to investigate a vehicle located just over the side from Highway 70. Photos by Victoria Metcalf

Fuel slick creates stir in Feather River

PG&E lowers water at Rock Creek Dam so workers can examine underwater mystery
This was the scene Oct. 5 as Search and Rescue volunteers prepared to lower an inflatable raft over the side. Booms were put in place to not only mark the site of a vehicle found submerged in the water, but to contain the fuel. The white buoy marks the spot where divers indicated they discovered the vehicle. As it turned out, the buoy had drifted and the vehicle was actually more to the left.

Whatever lies mostly buried below the surface of the Feather River at Rock Creek Dam will probably remain there — at least as far as members of the Plumas County Search and Rescue are concerned.

A rusted doorframe, perhaps an entire vehicle, lies buried in rocks, limbs, silt and other debris carried along by the Feather River. Whatever lies there on the bottom of the river doesn’t appear to be anything recent.

What started out as an oil or diesel slick on the Feather River at the Rock Creek Dam kept members of Search and Rescue busy for several days as they attempted to determine its origin.

When the slick was initially noticed by PG&E on Oct. 1, it was reported to the state’s Office of Emergency Services, said Deputy Mike Grant, who is also a longtime member of Search and Rescue. Grant said he became aware of the slick about 5:30 p.m. that same day when it was reported to Search and Rescue.

PG&E put out booms to contain the spill, Grant said.Later, operators at the dam site lowered the gates and began releasing water downstream, Grant explained.

Using the large equipment barge generally secured at the dam, Grant said that the hunt began when PG&E sent down two divers to see if they could determine where the slick was coming from.

Grant said they were able to determine that there was some kind of vehicle or parts of a vehicle below the water. But the water was so murky they couldn’t see their hands in front of their faces, Grant explained Oct. 5, as members of his team gathered to see what they could learn.

The slick by this time was long gone and never reappeared, although Grant said he has absolutely no idea what caused it in the first place or why it stopped.

Longtime Search and Rescue member John Kolb assists with the camera as Graham Shea gets the viewer set up. With a 14-foot attachment, the volunteers could drop the camera into water so murky and debris filled divers literally couldn’t see their hands in front of their faces. Divers were able to determine there was some sort of vehicle in the water and speculated that it had been there awhile.

Initially, the team brought two inflatable rafts to the scene along Highway 70 and the river. One raft carried an outboard motor, the second was larger and was paddle-powered.

Grant said they weighed their options about how to approach the site. Although the area, marked with yellow and white booms, was just down the embankment from the highway, they thought a better approach might be from across the river.

As the Feather River dropped behind the dam, the water receded to a point where mounds of wet soil were prominent. By lowering the smaller raft with the outboard motor to the water, then motoring across the narrowed river to a large section of land, they could then return to the site they wanted without getting hung up on something unseen below the dark water.

As members discussed their options it was determined that they could take the bright blue raft and go directly down the embankment and then paddle the short distance to the site.

Safety is always a first consideration, Grant explained. As a precaution the raft was tied to the heavy-duty bumper of the large search and rescue truck.

Volunteers John Kolb and Ralph Schroeder each took a side of the raft and helped walk it down to the water. Inside were the two oars they would need and the underwater camera they would use in hopes of learning more about what was below the waterline.

At this point, Grant was leaning more toward thinking that the vehicle had been underwater for some time; that this was no recent incident. The amount of debris divers came into contact with seemed considerable.

And while Kolb and Schroeder set up the raft and got everything prepared, volunteer Graham Shea collected a blue milk crate full of gear and followed the rope attached now to the search and rescue rig and the raft. Large rocks and boulders, in place to help stabilize the embankment, made for rough going as Shea backed his way down to the water.

After a few more adjustments, including Shea, a professional photographer, familiarizing himself with the underwater gear, Shea and Kolb climbed into the raft and worked their way toward the white float marking the site.  Or rather where they believe the vehicle was submerged.

But after a little while with no real results, they struck off to their left and were able to locate something below them. Grant speculated that perhaps a diver had tied the float to a door or some part of the vehicle and it had floated away to the end of its tether.

The team continued their search efforts, Grant explained. Sometimes those men who initially went down the embankment returned and others took their place. Grant, who had been directing maneuvers from above, said he also took a turn.

After a few days of examining the site and whatever was buried, Grant said they determined that their part in the operation was at an end.

“It’s really, really old,” Grant said, judging from the amount of rust they encountered in their search. But whether it’s more than a doorframe is unknown. At this point Grant said it would take a large piece of equipment, perhaps an excavator to bring it up, if there is indeed something there to retrieve.

Grant said that whatever happens is now in the hands of Plumas County Environmental Health Director Jerry Sipe.

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