Drowning, Rain, Fires On Holiday

Rains on Friday flooded streets in Payson, but neither the sign nor the flow of water discouraged some drivers.

Photo by Pete Aleshire. |

Rains on Friday flooded streets in Payson, but neither the sign nor the flow of water discouraged some drivers.


The hordes descended.

The hail fell.

The 911 scanner lit up.

But Rim Country made it through an action-packed Fourth of July weekend, with a blend of celebration, tragedy, weather and relaxation.

The one to two inches of rain that fell on Friday and Saturday morning largely doused an array of wildfires burning last week across the region, while lightning strikes caused a few new fires in southern Arizona.

The weather caused some local flooding in the usual places, like along Payson’s Main Street. But despite the sometimes heavy rainfall, the rains caused only limited problems in the burn areas near Young and Show Low.

Runoff from the storm on Monday boosted the flow of the Salt River to 160 percent of normal and of the Verde River to 189 percent of normal, according to Salt River Project’s Daily Water Report.

The prompt return of hot dry weather as the holiday weekend continued prompted forest rangers and volunteers to fan out to remind campers that fire restrictions remain in effect throughout northern Arizona, including all four national forests. Nonetheless, the Gila County Sheriff’s Office and the Payson Ranger District workers spent the weekend finding and smothering abandoned campfires.

Fossil Creek rescues

Meanwhile, rescue crews — often relying on stressed-out volunteers, spent much of the weekend hauling people out of Fossil Creek — especially on the Strawberry side, where the permit system hasn’t prevented woefully unprepared people from stumbling 1,500 down the four-mile trail to the spring — only to find they couldn’t make it back up out of the canyon with temperatures in the 90s.

Fortunately, the problems didn’t rise to the tragedy of another drowning.

Apache Lake drowning

However, a 37-year-old Tucson man did drown in Apache Lake, just below Roosevelt Lake along the Apache Trail. The man was acting erratically at 2 in the morning, evidently intoxicated. He staggered through several campsites and knocked over chairs before entering the water and swimming toward a buoy, according to the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. When he began to struggle in the water, several people set out from shore in an attempt to rescue him. When they reached him, he was floating face down. But he sank out of sight before they could pull him out of the water.

Divers searched for the body on July 4.

Hikers saved, skeleton found

In another bizarre tragedy, the Coconino County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Unit rescued two hikers — but also found human skeletal remains.

The rescue involved some daring maneuvers by a Department of Public Safety helicopter crew. The sheriff got the call originally from two hikers stuck on a cliff face near Sedona. Search and rescue crews couldn’t reach the pair before nightfall and ended up calling a Department of Public Safety helicopter to help with the rescue.

The helicopter pilot managed to maneuver to rest one skid on the cliff face, allowing the helicopter paramedic to scramble over onto the cliff and get to the hikers. The paramedic then escorted the hikers back to the hovering helicopter. Both Valley college students, they had no major injuries.

But the sheriff’s office soon received another call, this time with word that a rancher had found human, skeletal remains between Fredonia and Jacob Lake, north of the Grand Canyon. The rancher was working his cattle when he found the skeleton, clothing, boots, a backpack and a handgun under a tree.

Other weekend emergencies ended on a far more positive note.

Firefighters take shelter

The Forest Service released additional details on a near-tragedy when a Navajo Interagency Hotshot Crew working the Cedar Fire near Show Low got trapped by a terrifying “fire whirl” on June 28 on the edge of the burned area. Intense fires can generate all kinds of strange fire behavior, including this swirl of flying ash and woody debris — a small tornado of convection.

Lookouts warned the crew leader of the developing condition and the crew leader ordered his six-man crew to deploy their fire shelters. The incident took place almost exactly three years after 19 Prescott firefighters died in their fire shelters when an intense fire swept down on their position in a brush-choked canyon on the edge of the Yarnell Hill Fire.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs called for an investigation by an Interagency Serious Accident Investigation team, a now-routine step used to extract life-saving lessons from close calls.

Fire managers have increasingly learned to recognize the development of extreme fire behavior — including “fire swirls,” a spinning vortex of rising hot air and gases that carries debris and flames aloft. Such a swirl can range in size from one to 500 feet and spin with the intensity of a small tornado.

The Navajo crew had for several days been working the western flank of the 46,000-acre Cedar Fire, which had at one time threatened to force the evacuation of Show Low.

At about noon, three nearby lookouts reported a relatively safe, low-intensity ground fire. But by 2 p.m., the lookouts reported increased fire behavior as the day warmed. The lookouts and another scout moving along the fire line reported seeing a fire swirl.

Hearing the radioed reports, the Navajo crew promptly deployed their fire shelters, in case the swirl moved quickly in their direction, according to a release issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs fire management team. After 15 minutes, they came out of their shelters and hiked to safety, with no significant injuries.

Investigation launched

“The Navajo Interagency Hotshot Crew executed their training, which resulted in a successful outcome to a hazardous wildfire anomaly. As a highly reliable organization, the wildland fire community strives to learn and transfer lessons learned on a continual basis.  In the spirit of this culture, the BIA Western Region will provide the Factual Report to the Lessons Learned Center when the report is finalized,” the report concluded.

Back in 2013, an initial internal investigation into the deaths of the Prescott crew glossed over some of the problems with communications and command that led to the deaths. A subsequent, outside investigation revealed a number of problems — some of them the result of the timing of the turnover of management of the fire just as the Prescott firefighters decided to leave a safe, burned area to make their way to a position where they could more effectively help defend Yarnell from the intense and unpredictable fire. Fire commanders essentially failed to register that the Prescott crew had decided to leave the burn area and take the risk of moving through thick brush, out of sight of the fire itself.

Flooding poses risk

Meanwhile, over the weekend the much-reduced crew of firefighters keeping an eye on the smoldering remains of the Cedar Fire immediately had to pivot to face the next potential disaster — flooding.

Crews placed sandbags around a cemetery, to divert mudflows off the denuded slopes. They also installed 8,000-pound K-rails to divert water from the cemetery. 

Crews also installed flow detection devices on Cedar Creek and Carrizo Creek to give a downstream community a warning in case a dangerous flood or mudflow goes careening down the stream toward the small community of Cedar Creek.


David Hall 6 months, 2 weeks ago

Hey Pete Aleshire. The HORDES descended. Not "hoards."


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