Woman swept away in Sonoma County creek

The drowning death of a Sonoma County woman illustrates how fast and strong Bay Area waterways are running.

22-year-old Maile Kelly of Forestville was wading and swimming last Saturday at Big Sulphur Creek, northeast of Cloverdale.

Both she and her boyfriend, Kyle Wood, were pulled into the strong current but only Wood managed to make it to the bank.

Kelly's body was found in shallow water about a half-mile downstream.  

"She always had the biggest smile and everyone always called her smiley Maile, " remembered friend and co-worker Megan Oak.

Oak worked alongside Kelly at Fandees, a Sebastopol restaurant, where a memorial with photos, cards, and candles sits in a corner, dedicated to her memory.

"Basically saying how much much Maile meant to each person in their own way," said Oak, sadly.

Kelly was a server, popular with her co-workers and customers.

"She will definitely be missed. Every single one of the regulars, it hits them in the heart, because everyone cared about her so much," added Oak. 

Longtime family friend Michael Beery visited the swimming hole this week, determined to see it and lay flowers at the site.

"When I went up there, the water was flowing like a river," Beery told KTVU, "and seeing how it was rushing helped explain what might have happened."

Beery's daughters grew up with Maile in Santa Rosa.

He says Maile was savvy about the outdoors and around water.

But after record rain, and with so much runoff, he notes conditions have changed, and he hopes others don't unwittingly venture into danger. 

"There were pools where I could see somebody would want to sit in them, but right next to it, adjacent, is some fast flowing water," he cautioned.

First responders are bracing for a busy summer season, with snow melt and runoff making water conditions treacherous all over Northern California.

"It's a bad feeling, a pit in your stomach, when someone passes away, and it happens so fast," lamented Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman.

Baxman pointed to the Russian River, running three times as deep and five times as wide as normal at the Monte Rio Bridge.

He fears a surge in drownings and near drownings in the region, as people flock to swimming spots, not realizing they have changed.

"With all the water we've had, there will be underwater snags that weren't there before, current that wasn't there before," Baxman told KTVU, "and we've never had, in May, the river running this high or this fast." 

Michael Beery wiped away tears, as he described Maile Kelly as a "beautiful spirit."

He has posted a montage of photos of her on Facebook, and a GoFundMe account has been set up to help offset the family's burial expenses. 

Friends at Fandees are playing her favorite songs in the restaurant, and remembering her as thoughtful, kind, and outgoing.

"She knew how to live life to its fullest, and she was at such a peak," co-workers Elizabeth Price told KTVU.

"She was radiating, happy about everything, and always so positive. You can wait all your life to meet someone like that. She was that person."