A deluge of water from this weekend’s storm put nearly every emergency group to work in one of the busiest weekends seen in years. With water-related rescues in and around Tonto Basin, Star Valley, Payson, Whispering Pines and even the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, no area of Rim Country was spared.
The rain dumped more than five inches in Pine and closed crossings of the East Verde River and Tonto Creek, isolating many neighborhoods on Sunday and Monday.
The rain kept falling on Monday, swelling Tonto Creek to 6.5 feet high at one crossing and pushing the flow of water from near nothing on Friday to 6,000 cubic feet per second. Luckily, the barricades held Monday, keeping motorists out of the swollen creeks and rivers and keeping rescuers dry.
On Sunday, however, Tonto Basin crews pulled people from three waterlogged vehicles stuck in the creek.
Chief Steve Holt, with Tonto Basin Fire, said the first rescue happened just before 4 a.m. Sunday when a 50-year-old woman who lives on the east side of Tonto Creek plowed into the water in her brand new vehicle.
The driver, Roxanne Osbonlighter, called her husband for help, who then notified rescuers.
Osbonlighter managed to get herself and her two dogs out of the Chevy Equinox and onto the roof to await help. Rescuers with Gila County, including public works employee Lonnie Cline drove the county’s military two-and-a-half-ton truck into the creek, plucking Osbonlighter and the pups to safety.
The Gila County Sheriff’s Office later charged Osbonlighter with reckless driving and DUI.
Holt said the water level rose quickly in the creek starting Sunday morning. When residents went to the sleep Saturday, the creek was still passable. However, by morning, the flow had swollen to nearly 4,000 cubic feet per second.
About 6:40 a.m. Sunday, rescuers pulled two women from a stuck vehicle from nearly the same spot Osbonlighter had tried to cross at near Punkin Center.
On Monday, both vehicles remained in the creek, with Osbonlighter’s week- old Chevy pushed 60 yards downstream from the store crossing.
Holt said the water was up to the top of the seats in the vehicle and with the water still rising, could submerge the vehicle.
Also on Sunday, sheriff’s deputies assisted other stuck motorists, this time near the Bar X Crossing about 3 p.m. The driver, an older male, was uninjured.
It is unclear if any of the drivers will be cited or charged for their rescues.
As of Monday, all crossings in Tonto Basin were closed.
Residents said this weekend’s storm and subsequent rescues are another example of why the area needs a bridge.
Residents have been pushing for a bridge in Tonto Basin for years. The county has drawn up plans, but can’t find funding.
While things were busy in Tonto Basin, the flooding also caused a stir of activity on Houston Mesa Road, north of Payson.
On Saturday, the Whispering Pines Fire Department responded to a vehicle stuck at the Second Crossing and stranded hikers at the Third Crossing.
Fire Chief Ron Sattelmaier said by the time they got to the second crossing, the driver of the vehicle was already gone, leaving a Toyota passenger car in the water.
Sattelmaier said it appears the vehicle made it halfway through the crossing before it stalled out, shoved sideways by the water. Emergency crews towed the car out of the creek Sunday morning when the water subsided briefly.
On Monday, Sattelmaier said the creek was running higher and faster than it had all weekend, making the Control Road to Tonto Village the only way out of Whispering Pines.
A sheriff’s deputy had to take the Control Road Saturday to bring three hikers back to their vehicle.
The hikers had left their vehicle at the Water Wheel parking lot earlier Saturday for a hike up the canyon.
After crossing the creek, they found they could not get back after the water in the creek rose unexpectedly.
The fire district drove a fire truck across the Third Crossing and rescued the hikers about 7 p.m. The group had huddled in a restroom to stay dry, but Sattelmaier said they were still soaking wet.
He said the area had already seen 5.5 inches of rain since Friday and was expecting more through Tuesday.
On Saturday, the GCSO, along with a tow truck, helped a motorist stuck on Doll Baby Ranch Road. On Sunday, deputies helped another motorist stuck in the water, this time in Star Valley, near Moonlight Drive and Sprague.
On the highways, the storm caused no major accidents, but a number of slide-offs, said Sgt. Erik Axlund with the Department of Public Safety.
The storm also unleashed a number of rockslides.
Axlund said boulders fell onto the roadways south of town near Slate Creek, north of town between Pine and Payson and on Highway 260 near the Rim.
Highway crews removed the rocks without incident, he said.