Tragedies, Rescues Increase As Snow Melts

Warm days lure hikers into canyons brimming with rushing streams


On March 3, Tonto Rim Search and Rescue volunteers managed to rescue Ron Barnes’ dog from Box Canyon.

On March 3, Tonto Rim Search and Rescue volunteers managed to rescue Ron Barnes’ dog from Box Canyon.

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Photo courtesy of Jim McMillion

Tonto Rim Search and Rescue volunteers have already had a busy season.

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Photo courtesy of Jim McMillion

Several weeks ago, they used ropes to rescue a man swept away by Tonto Creek and trapped in Box Canyon.

Rising temperatures have drawn out hikers, but also sent snowmelt rushing down streams. In the past month, two people have already been swept away by fast-moving water.

While one of the rescues ended with a happy ending, the other ended tragically.

On March 17, a 22-year-old ASU student drowned while hiking near the Child’s Power Plant with friends. Although witnesses tried to rescue John Fisher II of Tempe from the Verde River, the river snatched him away and trapped him underwater against a tangle of debris.

Several weeks earlier, on March 3, Ron Barnes of Payson was rescued from Box Canyon after being swept downstream and over several waterfalls. Fortunately, Barnes was able to fight through the current and hoisted himself onto a boulder.

Tonto Rim Search and Rescue Commander Bill Pitterle said the power of water often surprises people.

“Water is extremely powerful, especially when it is moving fast like it is in these creeks,” he said. It is easy “to get swept away unexpectedly. Even ankle deep water is enough to knock you over.”

In Barnes’ case, he and a friend were walking along the Tonto Creek near the R-Bar-C Boy Scout Ranch when one of Barnes’ dogs entered the creek and was swept down over to the other side, leaving him stranded. Barnes attempted to coax the dog back, but found himself in need of rescue when the water washed him downstream.

In the course of a quarter-mile, Barnes went over several waterfalls, including a 15-foot-high waterfall that pinned him. Ultimately, Barnes freed himself and ended up waiting on a boulder for four hours for rescuers to arrive.

Pitterle said waterfalls are common in Rim Country creeks. Add in high water levels and the waterfalls quickly become deadly, trapping people underneath.

So far this year, Pitterle said it appears local creeks and streams are running twice as high as they were last year.

“It is not a good time to go swimming in them,” he said.

Fisher was not as lucky as Barnes.

According to the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office, Fisher was attempting to cross the swollen Verde River to access the Verde Hot Springs when he lost his footing and fell into the creek.

At one point, Fisher tried to hang onto a tree, lost his grip due to the swift current, and was tossed downstream.

Later, the YCSO Forest Patrol and a Department of Public Safety Ranger helicopter from Flagstaff spotted Fisher’s body hanging from a tree and partially submerged a quarter-mile from the hot springs.

“YCSO Rescue personnel cannot stress enough the dangers of river waters in lowland areas throughout Yavapai County,” the YCSO said in a press release. “River banks are swollen and the current in some sections is five times faster than its normal rate. Rescue experts recommend staying out of these swift waters regardless of how calm they may seem on the surface level. This also goes for vehicle travel across river areas.”

TRSAR agreed with the YCSO, adding creeks throughout northern Gila County are unsafe to enter at this time.

Every year, TRSAR volunteers respond to multiple river rescues. To prepare, volunteers practice rope rescues monthly. On Saturday, volunteers practiced in Box Canyon.

Pitterle said it is important for new volunteers to learn the ropes so when an emergency arrives TRSAR has enough volunteers. “We want to train as many people as we can, because we never know who is going to show up,” he said.

In addition, “rope rescues are extremely dangerous, so we insist on maintaining skills.”

“You cannot be fumbling trying to remember how to tie a knot” when someone is hurt and needs help, Pitterle said.

Rope rescue training usually lasts four hours and is unpaid.

For more information on TRSAR, to join or to donate, visit www.trsar.org.

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