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‘Flash Flood Chaser’ weighs in on southern Utah flash flood victims

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Posted at 5:45 PM, Sep 16, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-16 19:45:54-04

SALT LAKE CITY – When a flash flood hits, authorities tell us to get away as far as we can, but one man runs toward them.

David Rankin’s fearless nature has resulted in some great video over the years, and he says there’s a science behind predicting when and where a flash flood will surface.

As we saw this week in southern Utah, people don’t realize how powerful rushing waters are, and, in a moment’s notice, you can find yourself in trouble.

Rankin documents his up close encounters with flash floods as seen in one video from July 2013.

“I’m pretty sure today we're going to get a really nice flood,” Rankin says on camera, see the video above for the flood footage.

The self-described flood chaser positioned himself about 40 miles downstream from a creek basin in southern Utah. Six hours later, three inches of rain fell and a tsunami of debris quickly filled the wash.

“Whew... that was intense! OK, yeah: Those things are dangerous,” Rankin said.

FOX 13 News spoke with Rankin Wednesday via Skype from his office in Big Water, Utah, and he spoke about the nature of his work.

“I’m not just going out on a whim and jumping into a wash and filming a flood," Rankin said. "I always have my escape route planned."

After chasing flash floods for 15 years, Rankin said the devastating images coming out of Hildale, where earlier this week several people were swept away in a flash flood, are hard to take in. Twelve people have been found dead, and a child remains missing. 

“The flash floods, they're extremely dangerous," Rankin said. "I don't think people have a real good concept of how powerful that flowing water really is."

A viewer took a photo from this week's flooding, where you can see two cars off in the distance and people standing in front of them. Moments later, they’re overtaken by flood waters.

Rankin said the terrain in that area is steep and mostly sandstone. When a flash flood warning is issued and the rain hits, there’s not much time for people to seek higher ground.

“You can have billions of gallons of water just show up, catch you off guard and have nowhere to go," Rankin said.

Also on Monday, seven hikers got caught in a flash flood in Zion National Park. Six died, and one person is still missing. Rankin says it’s a sad reminder of how unpredictable flash floods are, and how dangerous it can be to find yourself in certain areas when the water starts to flow.

"There were forecasts put out days in advance that called out for thunderstorms, 40 to 50 percent chance of heavy rain in these areas”, Rankin said. He goes on to say, “You should make other plans if there's going to be more than 20 percent chance of rain because you are literally gambling with your life.”

Rankin understands why people are curious about flash floods and may want to watch. In fact, he says he was in Colorado City this past summer where big crowds came out to do just that. But, he says, be smart. Keep a safe distance away, and make sure you’re high above the wash.