Drivers in Sonoma County tempt fate on flooded roads
Some drivers are impatient, others aren't paying attention and a few don't realize the severity of the situation when they skirt “flooded roadway” signs during times of heavy rain.
But Monday afternoon a driver from Roseville in a jacked-up white Hummer drove onto flooded Sanford Road in west Santa Rosa road just because he wanted to, and it nearly cost him his life.
Instead, it took 21 local, county and state responders including Sonoma County Sheriff's Office's helicopter unit Henry 1 to rescue him.
He was one of numerous drivers Sunday night and Monday ignoring road signs alerting drivers of flooding and closed routes caused by the weekend storm - the heaviest in years - that pushed area rivers, creeks and waterways over their banks, blocking dozens of county roads, rural highways and obscure country lanes.
It's an annually frustrating issue for first responders who wonder why people ignore warnings and willingly drive into potentially perilous places despite blockades, signs and even on-site exhortations from firefighters and law enforcement.
In the north county, as many as seven drivers became stuck on flooded Alexander Valley Road at the bridge over the Russian River. Most of them needed rescue by firefighters.
“This is the first time I've seen that many vehicles in the water (with drivers) who just totally disregarded ‘Road Closed' signs,” said Geyserville fire Capt. Joe Stewart.
CHP Officer Jon Sloat said it's often a matter of patience.
“They're unwilling to take the time to take an alternate route,” he said of the drivers. “If your decision-making process contains the words ‘I think I can,' you should probably re-evaluate.”
He called it “a tremendous waste of resources for something that's completely preventable.”
One notorious west county flooding spot is the “S” curves on Green Valley Road, just west of Graton where water runoff from nearby Atascadero and Green Valley creeks often flood a section about 100 feet long.
Barricades marking the stretch as closed were routinely ignored Monday by drivers, who splashed waves through less than a foot of water.
Adrian Banuelos, 17, easily drove his silver 2005 Silverado with 33-inch tires through the flooded area. Banuelos, a junior at Analy High School who lives in Graton, said he was assessing the flooding. “I wouldn't try it if it was any deeper,” he said.
Ken and Michelle Buegeleisen also crossed through on a tour of the area.
“We're just looking to see how bad it is going to be tomorrow,” Ken Buegeleisen said.
Geyserville's fire Capt. Stewart said he some drivers “aren't aware as they should be. Some people just don't pay attention.”
The “Closed Road” signs went up Sunday afternoon on Alexander Valley Road. But that didn't stop several drivers, some heading to and from the nearby casino and others heading home, Stewart said. Most merely got just a short distance before water, that at times reached chest high, flooded engine compartments.
“I know it's a cliché. But the signs are up for a reason,” Stewart said.
Monday afternoon's rescue of the Hummer driver exemplified the problem.
About 1 p.m. the driver made the sharp westbound curve from Hall to Sanford Road and came upon the flooded roadway, caused by the inundation of Laguna de Santa Rosa.
Two triangular signs reading “Flooded” and “Road Closed” blocked the road, said Sebastopol Fire Chief Bill Braga, who was at the site.
The driver asked people nearby what was happening and was told the road was flooded with deep water. The driver responded something akin to “‘I don't think so. Watch me,'” the chief said, quoting bystanders.
“He starts going into the water with his fancy Humvee,” Braga said, using the trademarked name for military vehicles. “Halfway across, the current picked up his Humvee…it just pushed it into the deep water off the road.
“That's where we found him. He was all the way in the back of the Humvee, in the water, soaking wet.”
Firefighters had responded from Sebastopol, Graton and Rincon Valley fire departments, the CHP, National Guard and Sonoma County Road Maintenance. The helicopter crew flew in and snagged him, lowering the bedraggled man to firefighters and paramedics. He was checked for medical issues and then picked up by a friend, Braga said. His vehicle was left behind in the flood waters.
None of the responding officials had an identification of the man Monday. But Braga said once the Hummer is towed, the driver will be identified through the vehicle's license plate.
The responding public agencies could bill him, but Braga thought it unlikely. He estimated the Hummer was ruined. The driver will have to pay towing charges.
“We're risking our lives to save their lives after they did something stupid,” Braga said. “It's what we do.
“The man is very lucky. Very foolish, but very lucky.”
Staff writer Martin Espinoza contributed to this report.
You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707-521-5412 or email@example.com. On Twitter@rossmannreport.