Safer summer in Wilson Creek

After deadly 2013, a calm 2014
Jul. 13, 2014 @ 08:09 AM

Except for a monthly blare to test the five flash-flood warning sirens installed last summer, the Wilson Creek area is enjoying a relatively quiet year.

The creek was a dangerous, raging torrent this time last year, repeatedly and suddenly swollen by frequent downpours -- 14.55 inches of rain last July alone -- which posed an unusual level of hazard that even people who had visited the area before were not prepared for. Rescue crews were called 12 times in one three-week period to pull people from the roiling currents, and three people, including a 10-year-old girl, drowned in or near an area of the creek that is called "the bathtub" because of rock formations that form a large pool.

Bonnie Seeley of Salisbury and her husband, Jeremy Smith, read about the drownings prior to their arrival, along with four other adults and four children, to the Wilson Creek area for the first time last Monday. It didn't dissuade them from their plans to rent a small house above Wilson Creek and swim, but it prompted extra precautions for the children.

"We made sure we brought floatation devices, and that they don't get in the water without us," Seeley said. "Since we've been here, we've had a great experience."

Swimming in Wilson Creek is allowed but discouraged for those without a life jacket or for inexperienced swimmers. None of the drowning victims last year was wearing life jackets or other floatation devices.

Five sirens were installed last summer near the creek at Edgemont, Mortimer, the Wilson Creek visitor's center, the Deer Horn campground and the Brown Mountain Beach campground. The sirens are designed to blast at 120 decibels in case of a flash flood or tornado to warn visitors to quit swimming or kayaking. County officials had long been planning for the sirens, paid for with a $119,700 grant, due to the 13 flash floods in the Wilson Creek area in the last 30 years. There have been eight drownings since 1988.

Flash floods are always a concern in Wilson Creek because it receives runoff from a vast swath of mountainsides in the Pisgah National Forest. Heavy storms miles away can suddenly raise the water 12 to 15 feet in areas where it may be sunny. In 2013, there were 10 flash flood warnings issued for Caldwell County, said Tony Sturey, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Greenville, S.C.

This year, the waters have been comparatively calm. There have been no flash flood warnings issued and no drownings or rescues.

The average amount of rainfall for July is 4.4 inches. The first week of July 2013 brought 7 inches. This year, from July 3-10, the Collettsville area has received only about an inch.

"The creek has remained pretty normal," Capt. Larry Price of the Colletsville Fire and Rescue Department said. "It's been up a little at times, but from rains up in the mountains. With the weather that we have been having, everyone's been safe so far.

"It still can be a dangerous creek, but as long a speople respect and and use safety gear, they can have a fun stay."