Low-land flooding on the Yellowstone River put two homes near Shepherd under a layer of water Wednesday, while fast currents and eroding banks have Yellowstone County disaster officials asking the public to stay off the water.
“It’s a very, very dangerous time to be on the river, even in a boat. I highly recommend that nobody be on the river right now, at least through the weekend. When the flows go down and the river gets a little more calm," said KC Williams, Yellowstone County Disaster and Emergency Services director.
Williams said the county is experiencing "minor flooding", and the lion's share is flooding in low-lying areas. The Yellowstone's swift current is also eroding parts of the riverbank.
County disaster services knows of two homes and a few barns that were affected by the Yellowstone River flooding in the Shepherd area. Others don't have access to their homes from flooded roadways.
"I know there’s a couple of homes throughout the county where access to the home may have been cut off or restricted. Otherwise it’s just been low-lying land and pretty significant erosion along the bank due to the high flows," Williams said.
While the county government may categorize the flooding as "minor," Williams acknowledged that it isn't minor for those homeowners. Unfortunately, they aren't qualified to receive any financial help from the government.
"Up and down the river, the amount of damage we see right now, although terrible and devastating to the people who have experienced the damage, there’s not enough to qualify for any state or federal aid. Which is why that flood insurance is so important," Williams said.
Riverfront property owners should move equipment away from the riverbank and make sure not to get cut off from any livestock in case the river rises.
The Yellowstone River on Wednesday was hovering around its minor flood stage depth of 13.5 feet. The Yellowstone is forecasted by the National Weather Service to remain about that deep through the weekend.
“Right now, I think the biggest thing is to maintain safety in and around the river. From a human aspect, just stay off the rivers until they calm down a little bit," Williams said.
Near Arrow Island Park in Shepherd, dozens of large tree branches were caught up in the river with more passing by every minute. Trees like those are one reason Williams suggested people keep themselves and their boats off the river this weekend.
"There’s tons of debris. The water clarity is terrible. If you have an accident, or you hit a submerged or floating tree that throws you off course or capsized the boat, you have a current that nobody can swim through, you have extremely cold water which impairs your ability (to swim). And it poses a major threat and significant hazard for anybody who is going to try and rescue you," Williams said.
While the river is raging, the Yellowstone County disaster officials are prepping for wildfire season. Williams said his office is anticipating a "more significant fire season then we've had."
"It’s the fourth driest going into June that we’ve been. This is the fourth driest we’ve been ever," Williams said.
Don't be fooled by all the green grass out now, Williams said. It all can dry up quick with prolonged heat and no moisture.
He urged caution if people need to burn on their property. If a fire were to get out of control and require a major response, it's going to cost more time, effort, and money to put out due to COVID-19 restrictions among firefighters.
Wildland firefighters usually set up camps to eat and sleep near the fire site. Williams said social distancing would have to be implemented throughout the camp kitchen, showers and bathrooms.
"Be mindful of the fact that we do have an elevated fire season on top of the social distancing,” Williams said.
Farmers and ranchers around the county don't need a fire destroying crops after already suffering economic impact from COVID-19, Williams said.
"Our farmers and ranchers and agricultural areas have been hit hard enough with the shutdown of stores and eateries. Then of course those businesses have suffered. If we get a large fire that negatively impacts some of our farm land, or heaven forbid get into a metropolitan area … and start destroying homes. We’ve just had enough. It’s time for everything to calm down," Williams said.