Tonto Basin Area Hit By Flood, Fire And Mudslides In 2005

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Tonto Basin had a rough year in 2005. Residents had to contend with flooding, fires and mudslides.

In January, the wet winter resulted in flooding from Tonto Creek that resulted in two deaths; stranded residents and forced others to either take refuge at a Red Cross shelter or evacuate the area.

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George Allen Ewing stands beside the "New G.I." The vehicle was purchased with the help of the Tonto Apache Tribe and Mazatzal Casino to provide safe transport for residents who become stranded when Tonto Creek floods.

Michael Nowlan, 54, and Timothy Thibodeau, 54, were drowned when they tried to forge the flooded creek on a backhoe with Diane Powers, 40. The swift water overturned the backhoe. Powers was able to catch onto a tree and make an emergency call on her cell phone. She was rescued by a Department of Public Safety helicopter at around 2 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 4, but further rescue attempts were delayed by mechanical problems and the weather. Thibodeau's body was recovered Wednesday and Nowlan's body was spotted and retrieved Thursday.

July found more residents evacuating the communities in Tonto Basin, the Edge Complex Fire forced about 100 residents of the area to evacuate to an emergency shelter in Payson. Later in the month, with the arrival of monsoon rains, the road into the Tonto Basin area was briefly closed by a mudslide.

Reason to celebrate

But the residents of the communities still had reason to celebrate.

In late February, Dennis Pirch, owner of The Tackle Box, and Mark Kile, nationally recognized bass fisherman, presented an "Outdoor Rendezvous" with a variety of informational programs by experts, sales and trades of hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreational equipment and a chili cook-off. More than 1,000 people attended the event "Everyone I spoke to said they were having a great time, it was a lot of fun," said Dean Pederson, who presented one of the hunting programs.

In February, the Tonto Apache Tribe and Mazatzal Casino responded to the flooding hardships faced by residents of Tonto Basin by arranging for the purchase of a military vehicle to transport people and supplies across the creek.

For more than 50 years, residents and supplies have been shuttled across the creek in a 1943, 2-ton Army ammunition carrier, known as the "Old GI." The vehicle was bought by area pioneer son George Cline to use on his ranch and get across the creek when it was flooded. The vehicle and transport duties came into the hands of George Allen Ewing in the 1970s.

"We carried just about everything," he said. The vehicle could accommodate 10 to 12 people.

The new vehicle, christened the "New GI" is a 1967 Kaiser 5-ton, 6-by-6, which can carry up to 20 passengers.

The residents of Tonto Basin gathered for a thank-you party Feb. 19 at The Butcher Hook to express their appreciation for the help by the Tonto Apache Tribe and Mazatzal Casino and the services of Ewing.

Longtime Tonto Basin resident and owner of The Butcher Hook, Mitch Vuksanovich, said the federal government is largely to blame for the continuing flooding problems in Tonto Creek.

"We used to channel this creek until the bureaucrats got involved," he said. "Everyone could cross. They (federal officials) decided you couldn't move any dirt out the creek and now the creek goes where it wants to."

If the federal government shares responsibility for the flooding, at least one member of it is working to help the residents of Tonto Basin by securing funding for a bridge over the creek.

In March, residents of the area met with a representative from Congressman Rick Renzi's office to learn about his efforts to get them a bridge. The congressman had helped get money allocated to study the feasibility of constructing a bridge over Tonto Creek in 2003. In 2005 he worked to get $3 million of the Transportation Equity Act of 2005 directed to the bridge project.

While the money is not yet in hand, "We're a lot closer than ever before," said Byron Lake of the Army Corps of Engineers.

When a bridge is finally constructed it will be a benefit for all of Gila County, according to former Gila County Manager John Nelson.

"There is a lot of land on the other side of the creek that could be developed, adding revenue to our tax rolls," he said.

While the bridge money is still in question, that did not stop Tonto Basin residents from lending a hand to others in crises.

Two firefighters from the Tonto Basin Fire District were among the many Arizona emergency personnel who assisted in relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina. Captain Alan Ross and Stormi Ewing were sent to Atlanta, Ga., for training on Sept. 6. The two worked with evacuees in Texas and at a food bank in Baker Parish, La.

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