A mudslide triggered by an intense storm cell over the Willow Fire area slammed across Highway 87 Friday evening, forcing the closure of southbound lanes for more than five hours.
"About 7 p.m., the road had to be shut down due to two mudslides that crossed the southbound lanes in the area of milepost 230, 20 miles south of Payson right at Cane Springs Road," Department of Public Safety Sgt. John Whetten said.
Tonto National Forest Service Patrol Captain Tom Lister said the mud was as deep as four feet.
"We had a big storm system down there sit right on top of that Deer Creek range and Slate Creek, and we had a slide come across the road there just north of the Cane Springs turnoff," Lister said. "It was probably 30 feet across, and probably close to four feet deep on the outside lane and two feet deep on the inside lane."
There were no injuries reported, but Lister said it was fortunate that vehicles were able to stop.
"By the time we got Highway 87 shut down at 188, we had traffic backed up over the hill towards Gold Creek," he said. "Once we got officers in place, there was a pull-through between the north and the south bound traffic lanes, so we were able to get all the passenger-type vehicles turned around northbound, and all but two of the semis."
A rollover accident that occurred just before the mudslide also was weather-related.
"At 6:34 p.m., we were called to milepost 237," Payson Fire Chief Marty deMasi said. "There were no injuries."
DeMasi said his firefighters then assisted with mudslide cleanup and the road closure. The southbound lanes were reopened at 1:30 a.m.
The mudslide was not a total surprise.
"We've been expecting flooding and debris float coming off (the fire area), and we're going to continue to have that," Lister said. "We may have to close the 414 Road, the Cypress Thicket Road, for a lengthy period of time because we can't keep the flooding from going through the low-water crossings. They're all blown out and almost impassable right now."
Some trails within the Mazatzal Wilderness Area also may have to be closed because of the danger of flooding.
While rehabilitation efforts were recently completed in the Willow Fire area, Lister says it's virtually impossible to stop mudslides from happening.
"We put in some debris dams, but right there where that slide was we had what they call mass wasting," he said. "The hill just sloughed. Slate Creek actually flooded so much it ran over the top of the old Mount Ord Road. There's boulders and big old trees laying on top of the road there."
The vegetation burned by the fire normally minimizes flooding and mudslides.
"Typically, the vegetation breaks the water up to droplet size and impedes any flow of soil," Lister said. "We're doing reseeding, but it's going to take a while."
Lister warned nearby residents to stay alert.
"Anybody within the drainage areas coming off the Mazatzals is going to really need to watch the weather," he said. "This is not something that's going to go away in week or two. We'll be dealing with it for awhile."
The most problematic areas, according to Lister, are City Creek, Rye Creek, Barnhardt Creek, Deer Creek, Hart Creek, Gold Creek and Slate Creek. It doesn't take a lot of rainfall to create problems.
"Right as the fire ended we had just a light rain, about 1/4-inch, up on City Creek that took a three-foot wall of water down into Doll Baby and flooded one of their fields," Lister said.