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Pia Wyer / Photo by Pia Wyer 

Wildflowers blanket a hillside near Apache Lake. Off in the distance is Roosevelt Lake where you can pick up the historic Apache Trail after heading south on State Route 188 from Payson. Read more about the drive on p14.

Internet Cable once more in peril

Don’t get too attached to your internet — or your cell phone for that matter.

The broadband cable serving all of Rim Country looks just about ready to wash out again — with rain pelting the region.

Floodwaters have again nearly uncovered the recently reburied cable along Fossil Creek Road, according to Pine-Strawberry Fire Chief Gary Morris and Mac Feezor, a member of a committee working on providing redundant, high speed internet to the region — which also provides cell phone signals for most carriers.

Last fall, erosion exposed the broadband cable along the road down to Fossil Creek from Pine, closed some three years ago by the Forest Service. After finally removing a boulder blocking the road, CenturyLink crews could get down to bury the cable.

However, they didn’t install a culvert. A succession of winter storms has now removed much of the dirt the CenturyLink crews piled on the crossing — although a jumble of larger rocks remains.

Morris — who has been pushing for years to convince the Forest Service to resume maintenance of the road — drove to the site of the washout and took pictures this week.

In an email, Feezor wrote Morris he had “found that the area was again washing away, and the hole was filled with large boulders.

“When CenturyLink covered the cable the last time, they did not repair the culvert. They just padded the cross-over and filled it all in with dirt and rock. Without drainage, when rain and snowmelt runoff cross the road, the only thing that can happen is another washout. Until we get the second run of fiber to the area, we are in danger of losing ALL communication in the Rim Country area. Internet, phones, cell phones ... all depend on the fiber being exposed to damage because of neglect of the Forest Service (no road maintenance) and CenturyLink (bad installation/poor repairs).”

Rim Country has repeatedly lost internet and cell phone service in the past several years as a result of cuts in the fiber optic line between Payson and Camp Verde. Rim Country has a single, relatively low-capacity broadband cable carrying the signal.

As a result, there’s no redundant loop to reroute the signal and maintain service when the line breaks.

The outages have caused at least one death, a driver who couldn’t get life-saving help after an accident during one of the outages, officials have said.

The lack of a signal has also cost businesses sales, forced the transfer of ill patients to the Valley and overshadowed Payson’s efforts to lure businesses and corporations to the area.

Payson Ranger District Head Ranger Debbie Cress said CenturyLink, Gila County and other agencies can quickly and easily get permits to drive down the normally closed road to make repairs on the washout site.

She said she hadn’t heard the cable looks ready to once again wash out. However, she said she’s pressing for a meeting with local officials on the problem of granting access to the Fossil Creek Road — both to maintain the cable and for rescue operations. Local officials have not set up a meeting time yet, she said.

“When it’s an emergency like a washout or a power pole break, we authorize immediate action. So there’s not a lengthy paperwork process. They had told us that the line was stabilized to their satisfaction,” she said.

She said reopening Fossil Creek Road from Strawberry remains a difficult problem, although emergency crews and utilities can use it now, at their own risk.

For decades, Arizona Public Service maintained the road so crews could reach the hydroelectric plant in the bottom.

APS reportedly spent $180,000 annually on maintenance to keep the road open. The power company turned over the hydroelectric plant and maintenance of the roads in the canyon to the Forest Service around 2005.

The Forest Service shut down the Fossil Springs Road about three years ago, saying erosion and rocks rolling down from the slopes above the road made it unsafe.

A Forest Service study estimated it could cost as much as $6 million to stabilize the slopes above and upgrade the road for public use.

The Tonto National Forest spends about as much each year to maintain a network of 5,000 miles of dirt roads as APS spent on the Fossil Creek Road down from Strawberry.

Cress said no one asked to use the road to maintain the cable.

“They’ve never asked us for any support in getting down to their line. I have reached out to Gila County supervisors and different folks to try to get a meeting at the end of March to talk about a variety of these topics and how we tackle the road as a bigger issue. They have not given me a date yet that they’re able to meet.”

She said she hopes to convene a larger group to talk about the problem of making the road safe and preventing erosion from eventually making it impassable.

“My next line of thinking is to reach out to a bigger group of people who would be stakeholders to talk about the stabilization needs. I was hoping to wait until I could talk to the local folks first, but I may have to move forward more quickly if I can’t reach folks at the local level,” she said. “We have offered to the county the ability to go in and do maintenance on the road if they want to. They have also expressed concerns about safety to their employees and liability concerns. There’s a reluctance to do temporary fixes without addressing those larger hazards — which is talking about more money and more effort, rather than just triage.”

Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin did not return a call seeking comment prior to press time.


Woman pulls man from overturned truck

“This little girl saved my life.”

Those words brought tears to Kalyn Youngblood’s eyes Tuesday afternoon as she sat on the side of the Beeline Highway in the rain.

Moments earlier, Youngblood, 31, had pulled an older man from his overturned truck on southbound State Route 87.

Speaking to a Department of Public Safety state trooper, the man interrupted the officer to tell him what Youngblood had done to help him.

Youngblood, her children and her sister Gennica Rodriquez were headed to the Valley Tuesday so Youngblood could attend job training. Rodriquez was to watch her children while she completed training for Home Depot, where Youngblood has worked the past five years as measure technician.

Around milepost 216, as the road rises and bends east, they saw people waving their hands and shards of wood scattered across the roadway.

They saw a white truck on its roof down the muddy embankment.

“We pulled up to the wreck just moments after it happened,” said Rodriguez. “Kalyn jumped into action after pulling our vehicle off the highway. She threw wooden guardrail pieces out of the road and ran to the overturned truck. The gentleman in the vehicle was coherent and speaking to other bystanders.”

Youngblood started to pull items out of the truck and without thinking, climbed in. She found the man lying face up toward the roof in the passenger seat. She grabbed his belt, pushed more items out of the way, and pulled the man out.

The man appeared dazed, but otherwise fine, with a few cuts on his hands, she said.

He asked about the oxygen tank in the truck and they retrieved it.

“We didn’t know if (the truck) would roll down since it was really muddy and wet,” Youngblood said.

This is the first time Youngblood has done something like this and she believes her training while in the Air Force just “kicked in.”

Youngblood was in the Air Force for seven years where she worked as a munitions technician.

“I didn’t plan to go into it the truck,” she said. “I just did it. Today, it feels surreal like ‘did that really happen?’”

The driver, who was alone in the vehicle, was taken by ground ambulance to Scottsdale Osborn with non-life-threatening injuries, according to Bart Graves with DPS.


Man robs Chase Bank, arrested minutes later

A Payson man is in custody after reportedly robbing Chase Bank Tuesday afternoon.

Anthony Fischetti, 53, parked his white pickup truck near the rear exit of the bank, at 201 S. Beeline Highway, and around 4:30 p.m., walked in and demanded money from a teller, said Police Chief Don Engler.

He reportedly told the teller he had a gun and would shoot her. The teller did not see the gun, Engler said.

She gave him an undisclosed amount of money and he fled back to his truck and out on South Ponderosa Street.

Officers quickly flooded the area and as they began to search, a Gila County Sheriff’s Office deputy observed Fischetti’s vehicle near South Ponderosa Street and East Aero Drive. Fischetti complied with the officer’s request to stop and was taken into custody without incident, Engler said.

Officers found a handgun in the truck, he said.

He was arrested on charges of aggravated liquor DUI, robbery with the use/threaten of a deadly weapon, prohibited possessor possessing a weapon and threat to cause physical injury or property damage.

Anyone with information is asked to contact Det. Josh Cadwell at 928-472-5079.

MHA Foundation announces plan for prep school

After it appeared the project had iced over, an ambitious plan to bring a college prep school to Payson along with ice skating rinks and additional ball fields has thawed.

On Wednesday, the MHA Foundation and Varxity Development Corp. announced the launch of a six-month study of a new plan to build a prep school, community center, pool, dorms, sports fields and ice arena on a portion of the proposed university site.

The school and community facilities would occupy about 10 percent of the 254-acre site, said MHA officials.

The overall plans for the site still call for additional educational facilities and other development.

The MHA has spent a decade working on its overall plan.

The group bought the land from the Forest Service and put in infrastructure, but couldn’t convince Arizona State University to seal the deal for a four-year campus.

Now it appears Varxity may build a prep school on a roughly 25-acre portion of the site.

MHA officials said Varxity would become one of the revenue streams that would make the master plan work.

Lane Moore, Varxity president, had initially proposed building a potentially 600-student prep school behind Walmart, near Rumsey Park. He hoped the town would agree to major improvements in the park so student-athletes could train there.

In September 2017, Payson and Varxity split the $250,000 cost of having consultants Community Center Partners to draw up a master plan to rework the park by expanding and relocating playing fields and adding walking paths, new dog and skate parks, a year-round pool, community center and two ice skating rinks.

CCP said financing for the $43 million complex would come from private sources, secured by revenue generated by the facilities.

The consultants wanted another $500,000 to draw up final plans — including a financial plan.

However, the plan died due to opposition by residents, new council members and passage of two propositions that would require voter approval of any plan.

The plan appeared dead as the new council took office.

However, this week the MHA Foundation announced its agreement with Varxity to again hire Community Center Partners to draw up a detailed plan by August, according to a press release from the MHA Foundation.

“The planning process includes locating the proposed community and aquatic center; the college prep academy; the ice arena; and the sports fields on a portion of the 265-acre university site off Mud Springs and Granite Dells Roads,” the release states.

It will include the design, cost model, funding and financing plan needed for the proposed facilities.

Donations from community leaders who “believe that there is a need for these quality of life facilities, including a community and aquatic center and additional sports fields for Rim Country” will fund the study.

“Raising hundreds of thousands of dollars has been made easier by donations being matched dollar for dollar by generous major community leaders and organizations,” the release states.

“The MHA Foundation board is committed to our mission to advance strategic education and health initiatives for Rim Country and believes these multi-generational facilities will further those goals,” said Kenny Evans, president of the MHA Foundation board. “Accomplishing that in a way that does not create a financial burden requires finding alternate revenue sources such as the proposed prep academy.”

Moore has wanted to bring an elite college prep academy to the Southwest for some time.

“Varxity Development Corp. continues our interest in a future presence for the college prep academy and the supporting sports venues in Payson. We have enjoyed the overall community support to locate our academy in Rim Country,” Moore said.

Upon hearing the news, Payson Mayor Tom Morrissey said he was excited to hear Moore still wants to bring his school to Payson.

“I don’t have any problem with it at all,” Morrissey said. “That said, I have the responsibility to the town to make sure we don’t get saddled with any financial debt.”

Former Payson Mayor Craig Swartwood said he too was happy to hear Moore wanted to build in Payson.

“I think it is a great fit,” he said. “I am glad he is still interested.”

Lee Ploszaj, Community Center Partners president, said they are excited to get back to work on the project.

“Although this process no longer involves the town, the master plan process does offer direction for providing significant quality of life services for all of Rim Country,” he said. “The opportunity to advance the planning process with MHA Foundation, Rim Country Educational Foundation, LLC and Lane Moore, from the original concept to a plan that can become reality is quite exciting for all of us.”

Peter Aleshire contributed to this story.