DULUTH — The Duluth Fire Department responded to 39 water emergencies in 2021, a sharp uptick from the prior year and more than double the number from five years ago.
Three of those rescues came on days the community was warned of rip currents in Lake Superior, and the majority were on the Great Lake during the city's steamy summer months. While much of the increase is likely from an influx of the pandemic-weary public flocking to the beach, it's also about users not seeing warnings or knowing the power of Lake Superior, said Shawn Krizaj, Duluth Fire Department chief.
"This is Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes — an area where people are comfortable around water," he said. "They don't realize Lake Superior is a totally different animal and a lot more dangerous."
In response to years of rising numbers, the city of Duluth has ramped up efforts to alert residents and visitors of rip currents — the dangerous, narrow channels of water that can, in an instant, sweep swimmers out into the lake even when close to shore. The fire department also added to its arsenal of rescue equipment in 2019, with a jet-ski and large fireboat for Lake Superior rescues.
The city checks the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for forecasts during rip current season, which runs from June to September, and uses electronic signs to warn visitors of rip currents near popular Park Point beaches. It flies red flags and blankets local and social media with notifications.
"Park Point is our largest beach, with thousands of visitors," said city public information officer Kate Van Daele. "We welcome and encourage that, but want people to use it safely."
Fire crews have rescued people in calm water and wild surf, some who suffered from hypothermia after just a few minutes. It might be 90 degrees in the air with a bearable water surface temperature, but 10 feet down it's frigid, Krizaj said.
The most rescues performed on a single day came in August 2003, when the department performed 13 on Lake Superior; one man died. Even rescue swimmers were hospitalized that day, Krizaj said. In 2021, one man drowned in the St. Louis River in Duluth trying to save two children, including his daughter.
Krizaj said the department is exploring a rescue swimmer program, so crews can dive deeper for rescues.
Training and new equipment costs money, he said, "but as we look at these numbers going up, 56% in one year, it seems like a community need."
About 10 of last year's rescues came in the winter months, which typically include anglers or dog walkers trapped on a floating chunk of ice after it broke off from a larger sheet. Last year 26 anglers were rescued in a single incident for that reason. Ice can break up to a mile away from cutters clearing the way for ships.
The St. Louis County Rescue Squad didn't see a major bump in water rescues in 2021. The squad, which covers the 7,000 square miles of the county, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the Superior National Forest, was called to 101 water emergencies in 2021, eight more than in 2020 and only two more than 2019.
Capt. Rick Slatten said its rescue numbers, which saw a big jump when calls to the squad became automated in 2015, have hovered in the same range now for several years.
Slatten implored people to wear life jackets.
"It turns a tragedy into a beer-drinking story around the campfire," he said.