A driver who was one of two men to be rescued from fast-flowing floodwater near Umberleigh yesterday in a rescue operation which reportedly cost thousands of pounds has been fined for wasting police time.
The driver of the 4x4 was handed a penalty notice after the two occupants got into difficulty by driving into the fast-flowing River Mole, a tributary of the Taw which had flooded the road.
The 4x4 vehicle they were travelling was swept 60 metres downstream, near Mole Cottage at Watertown.
Fire crews from Chulmleigh and South Molton, along with the specialist rescue team from Barnstaple, two ambulances and a number of police officers were called to the scene at 12.29pm.
A search and rescue Sea King helicopter from RNAS Culdrose in Helston, Cornwall, was also scrambled to the scene but was stood down en route after crews managed to rescue the men by boat.
One of the men managed to self-rescue by wading downstream and climbing up the riverbank. The other man was rescued by an inflatable boat launched by the fire service’s specialist rescue team.
Pete Merrilees, fire service watch manager, said: "The river had been inflated by the recent rainfall and it was wider and deeper than it usually is. It was quite fast flowing and there was no way you could walk or wade through it safely."
He said it seemed the two young men in the 4X4 thought they could cross the river but got caught out. When the vehicle entered the water, it was swept 60 metres downstream.
When fire crews arrived the vehicle had settled on all four wheels but the water levels were up over the bonnet.
He said both young men were in the vehicle when crews got there but one managed to get out and make it to the bank "more by luck than judgement."
The specialist rescue team launched their inflatable boat and firefighters rescued the other man who was perched on the window of the car.
Graham Rooke, Bideford Station Manager, said the rescue operation cost thousands of pounds, all of which comes out of the taxpayer’s pocket.
He said: “We often have rescues after people have driven through floodwater but it’s the first time I’ve ever seen someone try to drive up a river that’s swollen.
“The fire service’s involvement in the rescue alone would’ve cost in the region of £2500-£3000 and that’s without adding on the cost of the police, ambulance and the rescue helicopter. It costs around £800 an hour for one fire appliance and there were two, plus the specialist team for over an hour at this incident.
“People need to be more cautious with more floodwater. We can’t condone these sorts of actions. They’re not only putting their own lives at risk but also the people that come to rescue them and its costing the taxpayer every time.”
The vehicle has now been left at the scene and has been left in the hands of the owner to take of.
Mr Rooke explained the vehicle was not rescued by firefighters as it would’ve been an uncessary risk for the crew to take.
He said: “We had to make the decision whether we were happy to commit crews back into the water to winch the vehicle out.
“We happily risk our own lives to save a life but we’re not risking our lives to rescue a vehicle that is in that sort of position so the decision was made not to go back in and get it.”
Mr Merrilees said the incident could have been a lot worse and said it illustrated the dangers of trying to drive through flood water.
Devon and Cornwall Police confirmed the driver of the vehicle was handed an £80 penalty notice for wasting police time.
Press officer Alan Mobbs said: "This not only wasted paramedics time but also police and fire crews.
"What might seem to be a bit of a game could end tragically not only for those taking the risk but also the emergency services who are called upon to sort them out.
Particularly when it's busy, these resources could've been better employed on other tasks and I would ask that people use common sense in poor weather conditions.