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Rushing Valley rivers have already taken people with them as Sierra snowmelt intensifies

Water rushes under a bridge as California's snowmelt ramps up during high temperatures.
Fresno County Sheriff's Office
Water rushes under a bridge as California's snowmelt ramps up during high temperatures.

Click here for coverage of the 2023 floods in the San Joaquin Valley.

FRESNO, Calif. – Surging Sierra Nevada snowmelt claimed two more lives over the weekend after Fresno County rescue teams pulled the remains of young siblings out of the Kings River.

A 4-year-old boy and his 8-year-old sister were swept away Sunday near Pine Flat dam during a family outing, according to the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office.

On Monday, CAL Fire search-and-rescue crews found the boy nearly two miles from where strong currents separated the children from their mother. The girl was found shortly after falling into the water on Sunday.

Both had died by the time first-responders located them. Neither child had been wearing a lifejacket, according to the sheriff’s office.

The Kings River – like most other San Joaquin Valley waterways – has been closed to the general public since March due to safety concerns.

Warming temperatures are sending torrents of frigid water down the Sierra, causing flows to soar to 50-year highs.

As the San Joaquin Valley flirts with triple-digit highs amid a summer-like heatwave, icy-cold rivers may seem like a refreshing respite. But fast-flowing river water can be deadly. Currents are deceptively strong, and debris uprooted from severe flooding earlier this year only increases the danger.

“It’s melted snow, so it’s extremely cold water,” explains Daniel Harty with the National Weather Service in Hanford. “It only takes a few minutes and hypothermia can start setting in.”

In Tulare County, deputies continue searching for two men reported missing along the Tule and Kaweah rivers. That includes a man who was swept away while saving a 7-year-old girl from the water, according to the sheriff’s office.

Statewide, more than half a dozen are missing or dead so far this spring.

Valley sheriffs say local rivers will remain closed until flows return to safe levels. That could be a while, authorities warn, with flows expected to peak in late June.

Accessing closed rivers comes with a minimum fine of $225 in Fresno County.

“Water levels are being monitored on a daily basis and a decision to reopen the rivers will be made once these extraordinary dangerous conditions improve,” the Fresno County Sheriff's Office said in a social media post that ends with the hashtag “#LifeOverRecreation.”

Joshua Yeager is a Report For America corps reporter covering Kern County for KVPR.