As a 13-year-old in 1958, John Borboa remembers filling sandbags with other residents to keep his hometown of Firebaugh from flooding due to the adjacent San Joaquin River possibly overflowing.
Now 65 years later, Borboa, the city’s longtime fire chief, is again keeping a close eye on the river along the east side of the community.
Record rain and snowfall have left the 8,000 residents of Firebaugh anxious as the river continues its steady rise. And most agree that the anxious moments will extend until the summer.
The river has already flooded the Riverfront Park and rodeo grounds, and the San Joaquin River Bypass, several miles east of Firebaugh, is filling up fast. Recently, the California Conservation Corps came to town, and workers erected a sandbag wall with thousands of bags protecting areas of town, according to Firebaugh Police Chief Sal Raygosa. He explained that things have calmed down lately, but that doesn’t mean the city is in the clear.
“We are going to have to watch the snow melt going forward, and I think we will be watching through June and maybe even July,” said the chief.
Both Borboa and Raygosa remember 1998, the last time heavy snow combined with hard and warm rain left the city up in arms. The sandbag wall was set up back then, and the southern part of town considered the lowest, was evacuated for several days. Then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger even flew into town to survey the situation.
A breach in the Bypass levee also flooded Avenue 7 and Firebaugh Boulevard, cutting off the main roads to Madera and Fresno.
Raygosa and other officials will keep a keen eye on water releases from Millerton and Pine Flat Dams. They also hope the valley’s inevitable summer heat will hold off.
“Millerton and Pine Flat will be filling up, and then officials will be sending a lot of water down the river,” he explained. “The dams are already 80 percent full. I hope that it doesn’t get hot too fast so that the snow melts all at once. “I think we have done a lot to prepare and look at areas of concern and built up the levees. We want to limit the possibilities of flooding, and we are monitoring the river all the time to see how much the river has come up. It’s a lot worse than 1998 because of the snow, so it’s kind of scary.”
He said officials also hope that as farmers plant crops, water will be diverted to them and take pressure off the river.
In 1998, Firebaugh residents expressed frustration with government officials that the river was clogged with fallen trees and other debris impeding a smooth flow. According to city council member Brady Jenkins, it has been a while since then, and now it is even more clogged.
“The Army Corps of Engineers was notified about the river not being maintained, and nothing has changed,” said Jenkins, who has been fielding numerous phone calls from nervous residents.
He has met with Congressman John Duarte, State Senator Anna Caballerro, and Fresno County Supervisor Brian Pacheco. According to Jenkins, all three have come to town to look over the matter.
“Also, I am worried about sinkholes. Because of the drought, all of that ground has been dry for years, and now a lot of water may collapse it,” he explained.
Jenkins also said that city officials have been meeting with school district officials on action plans to protect school sites and students.
So, it will be a spring of angst for Firebaugh residents, Chief Raygosa said.
“It’s calm right now, but there will be anxious times in Firebaugh for months to come,” he said.
In a related matter, Fresno County Sheriff John Zanoni has issued an order banning residents from entering the river. Those who ignore the order and are caught will face a fine. The order will run through July.