Every summer, Sacramento County law enforcement officials would brace for the carnage that came with tens of thousands of drunken revelers flocking to the American River.
Fistfights, clubbings with raft paddles and river rocks being thrown were the norm in some areas, especially during the three major summer holidays that lured rafters from throughout Northern California.
This weekend, however, as authorities prepare for the first major holiday of the warm months, expectations are for calm, leisurely floats down the river by mostly well-behaved families and groups.
Alcohol bans approved in 2006 and 2007 for the river and the parkway during the Memorial Day, July 4 and Labor Day holidays have had a dramatic impact on the river and on the huge festivals such as “Rafting Gone Wild” that once attracted thousands of people through Internet postings.
“This is the weekend that usually sets off summer and it starts picking up from here,” said Kent Hansen, manager at the popular American River Raft Rentals shop at the river near Sunrise Boulevard. “However, it’s nothing like it used to be because it’s a dry weekend.
“It’s not the big party it once was, but it’s a really good time for families because everyone out here is really well-behaved.”
That is exactly what law enforcement hoped for from the alcohol ban.
“It does help calm things down,” said Sacramento County’s new chief park ranger, Michael Doane. “One of our concerns now is that the river is lower than normal and the flow is slower, so it’s going to take a long time to float downstream.
“That’s a lot of time to consume alcohol, so no alcohol during the three major holidays has really helped decrease the number of assaults and batteries and disturbances that we’ve had within the park system.”
Even with the ban, which is designed to keep rafters from bringing coolers filled with booze onto their rafts at the most popular put-in spots near Sunrise Boulevard, authorities still plan to be out in force.
The Sacramento County sheriff’s boat patrols will be out on area waterways, and deputies will be available to provide aid to area agencies if there are problems.
All of the county’s 18 rangers are expected to be on duty Monday to enforce the ban and keep the peace.
“It will be a maximum enforcement deployment weekend, so we will have more rangers out on the parkway trying to educate the public and enforcing the ordinance,” Doane said. “We’re ramping up because we’re anticipating, since it’s gorgeous weather right now, that the parks could be full.”
A major concern this year is fire, because of the dry conditions the state’s three-year drought has created. Each year, a number of arsons are reported along the parkway and the first major fire of the year erupted last week below the Fair Oaks bluffs, forcing evacuations and causing minor injuries to two firefighters.
Authorities labeled that fire arson, saying there were three ignition points for the blaze near Sailor Bar.
With thousands of people expected along the parkway, authorities are concerned about the potential for fire caused by even seemingly innocent pursuits such as barbecuing or smoking.
Officials caution that charcoal grilling is only allowed at designated barbecue and picnic spots in parks, and that open flames and charcoal are not permitted on river beaches. Smoking also is limited to designated picnic areas, atop levees and on asphalt areas and at county golf courses.
“If you’re off the multi-use trail and you’re hiking some of the dirt trails, there’s no smoking there at all,” Doane said.
Fire crews already have begun creating fire breaks and clearing out excess brush that can serve as fuel, and training burns for firefighters along the parkway are scheduled to begin Tuesday and continue into mid-June, Sacramento Fire Department spokesman Roberto Padilla said.
“This will be a multi-agency operation teaching firefighters to use fire to fight fire,” Padilla said, adding that fire officials are publicizing the plans in hopes of keeping 911 calls from area residents to a minimum.
The burns are planned from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in various spots along the parkway, with several concentrated from the Cal Expo area west toward Woodlake Village.
The Cal Expo area was the site of a 160-acre grass fire last July 4 that forced the evacuation of the Raging Waters park at Cal Expo and the cancellation of a Republic FC match at Bonney Field.
“Our fire danger is still extremely high, and there are these cold fronts bringing in pretty strong southern winds that increase the fire danger,” Padilla said.
Even with the cautions, conditions may be just right for a pleasant experience along the river.
Temperatures are expected to be in the low 80s Saturday, and flows in the river have increased in recent days, making it easier to navigate.