A day before the Water Wheel Fire started, it was a normal Saturday afternoon with people hiking throughout the Rim Country.
While most returned home safely, a handful of people narrowly escaped disaster.
The volunteers with Tonto Rim Search and Rescue responded to three calls for service, two involving a group of Boy Scouts and the other a couple from the Valley.
The first call came in around noon. A Valley woman, in her early 40s, was hiking with a friend. As they hiked through Box Canyon, the woman rolled her ankle. Somehow, they both fell together. She broke her ankle, the man with her, injured his knee and ankle.
Box Canyon is a deep fissure several miles long that includes dozens of pools hikers enjoy swimming and fishing in. Located just 20 miles east of Payson, it is a popular place on the weekends.
Thinking the pair was in the canyon where 80 percent of people injure themselves, Commander Bill Pitterle had his crew begin unloading gear above the fifth swimming hole.
This spot is so common for rescues, TRSAR drilled anchors into the rock to lower rescue litters off it. They also train at the spot several times a year.
However, Christopher/Kohl’s Fire Department determined the pair was not in the swimming hole but actually a half a mile farther down the canyon.
“It was extremely difficult to get to them,” Pitterle said.
It took rescuers several hours to hike through “incredibly rough terrain” to reach the site directly above the pair.
Once there, the rescuers set up their gear and lowered a litter 500 feet down to the woman. At least 20 volunteers helped pull the woman up. The man, although complaining of injuries, was able to hike out.
The volunteer rescuers carried the woman out. Most didn’t make it home themselves until after 8:30 p.m.
During that rescue, Pitterle received a call around 12:30 p.m. saying a Boy Scout needed to be rescued from Fossil Springs. Reportedly, a rock had rolled and struck the Scout, injuring him.
Pitterle called more TRSAR volunteers and sent them to the creek to help with the rescue.
A helicopter was able to land in the canyon and fly the boy out.
The extent of the Scout’s injuries is unknown, Pitterle said.
Several hours after the Scout was injured, Pitterle got another call from the same Boy Scout troop, this time reporting that one of the Scout leaders had become dehydrated.
Again, TRSAR went to the canyon, delivered water to the troop and helped the uninjured but suffering man back out of the canyon.
However, TRSARs weekend wasn’t over yet. On Sunday, they were called to help evacuate homeowners in Geronimo Estates because firefighters feared the Water Wheel Fire might accelerate under the influence of strong winds and quickly cover the four miles or so to the isolated development clinging to the sides of a steep, narrow, thickly forested canyon.
Ultimately, winds shifted in the firefighters’ favor, so the flames never seriously menaced Geronimo Estates.
This year has been extremely busy for TRSAR, which has already responded to at least 38 calls — two calls over their record.
“And the year’s not even over yet,” Pitterle said.