The first storm of winter claimed two lives in the Rim Country this week, a 27-year-old Tempe firefighter and 38-year-old man from Young.
The weather also stranded a family looking for a Christmas tree and dozens of elk hunters throughout Coconino County. On Friday, rescue teams continued airplane and helicopter flyovers of hunt areas to determine if anyone needed assistance.
Searchers had already helped 50 hunters. Several groups of hunters declined help and rescue crews continue to check on their welfare.
With another winter storm expected to blow into the high country this weekend and off-road conditions already treacherous, rescue crews will remain active.
On Wednesday, Shane Brown’s body was found in 18 inches of snow, nearly covered and out of view of rescuers. Brown left his Young home on Monday, heading down Young Road in his pickup. Brown parked his truck on the side of the road and walked into the forest, said Gila County Sheriff’s Sgt. Terry Hudgens.
The Gila County Sheriff’s Office got a call that Brown was missing and could be disoriented. Officers began a search for Brown near his truck but could not locate him. A snowplow operator told rescuers he noticed Brown’s truck and several footprints going north into the forest.
When Tonto Rim Search and Rescue arrived to help, Commander Bill Pitterle said Brown’s tracks had been wiped clean from the recent snowfall. Seven TRSAR volunteers on snowshoes began a grid search in the area but came up with nothing.
On Wednesday, searchers in an OTV found Brown’s body a mile and a half north of his truck. Brown most likely died of hypothermia, Hudgens said, although an autopsy report is not yet available.
Officers discovered Brown had called 911 from his cell phone on Monday afternoon, although because of the remote area, dispatch never received the call.
Skylar Stock of Queen Creek was found dead in his tent Monday evening after a tree snapped, landing on his head, said Gerry Blair, with the Coconino County Sheriff’s Department.
Stock and a friend were elk hunting 20 miles east of Camp Verde when they set up camp and went to sleep near the Blue Ridge area, an eighth of a mile off Highway 260.
Around 10:30 p.m., the Gila County Sheriff’s Office got a call from Stock’s friend saying that a tree had fallen onto their tent during the winter storm.
“It is believed that the high winds caused a ponderosa pine tree that was approximately two feet in diameter and about 70 feet high, to snap approximately 20 feet from the ground,” Blair said in a press release. “The top portion of the tree fell on the tent and struck the victim on the head causing his immediate death.”
Stock’s friend, who was uninjured in the fall, cut his way out of the tent. He then cut his way back into the tent to get Stock’s cell phone and call for help.
The National Weather Station reported wind gusts up to 66 miles per hour in the area that night and detectives found evidence of severe ant infestation where the tree snapped.
On Tuesday morning, searchers rescued a Payson family of five, including a pregnant woman, who was Christmas tree hunting in the Forest Lakes area.
Dispatch initially got a call from the pregnant woman’s sister who reported the family was long overdue.
The 19-year-old pregnant woman, her 21-year-old fiance, her 1-year-old son and her 5- and 3-year-old nephews left Payson in search of a Christmas tree Monday afternoon. They purchased a Christmas tree permit at the Heber Ranger Station, but by 3:15 p.m., had called the sister to report they were stuck and in the process of freeing the car.
After numerous attempts to contact the woman by phone, Coconino County Sheriff’s deputies began looking for the family.
Snowplows from the Gila County Sheriff’s Office and Arizona Public Service were used to search Rim Road 300.
At 4:30 a.m., the family was located in their car cold and hungry, but uninjured.
Several groups of hunters weren’t so lucky.
Days after the storm hit, Blair reported Thursday that more than 50 hunters had to wait days to be helped out of their snowed-in camps.
On Friday the sheriff’s office along with multiple agencies continued to search for distressed hunters and those that had declined help in remote areas throughout the county. Crews are searching by helicopter, on foot, with snowmobiles, snow cats and four-wheel drive vehicles.
Blair reported people were stranded throughout Coconino County, including:
• Two at Blue Ridge in the area of Forest Service Road 149 near the junction of Highway 260 and 87.
• Two at Woods Canyon Lake.
• An unknown number near Tusayan in the area of Forest Service Road 310.
• One at Tusayan in the area of Forest Service Road 320.
• Ten at Tusayan in the area of Forest Service Road 310A.
• Two near Perkinsville Road in the area of Forest Service Road 108.
• Three at Turkey Butte.
• Two at Fry Park.
• An unknown number near Woody Mountain Road in the area of the junction of Forest Service Roads 538 and 527.
• Two at Rogers Lake in the area of Forest Service Road 527.
• An unknown number near Munds Park in the area of Forest Service Road 700 north of Little Horse Park.
• Several people near Norris Tank.