It was a hectic weekend in Rim Country with multiple high intensity emergencies. From a fire at a popular Mexican restaurant to a power outage Friday and multiple accidents Sunday.
On Friday afternoon, power went out for three hours to nearly 9,000 residents, closing Walmart and other businesses just as weekend travelers started pouring through town. Read more about the outage on page 6.
Then early Saturday morning, around 4:15 a.m., the Payson Fire Department responded to Alfonso’s Mexican Food, 510 S. Beeline Highway, where they found a roaring fire in the fast food restaurant.
“The fire was well established in the kitchen area,” said Fire Chief David Staub. “That is where most of the damage was contained. There was heat and smoke damage to the rest of the building.”
While the cause of the fire is still under investigation, the fire is believed to have started in the kitchen. There is no evidence of criminal intent, he said.
Within minutes, firefighters had the fire out, but were on scene until 7 a.m. looking for any hidden fires, such as hot embers that had fallen behind equipment.
No one was in the building at the time the fire started, but the owners and their insurance agent arrived on scene shortly after it was reported. They reportedly closed up at 11 p.m. Friday.
“They are probably going to have to rebuild,” Staub said, given the age of the building.
“It was my favorite burrito place,” he said. “Luckily, we managed to get it out and nobody got hurt.”
Besides Payson, the Hellsgate Fire Department responded bringing the total number of firefighters on scene to 16.
On Sunday, there were two motor vehicle accidents, one north of Payson and the other south of town.
Just before 11 a.m., two pickup trucks hauling trailers collided on southbound State Route 87 at milepost 230, roughly 20 miles south of Payson.
“When the pickup trucks collided, one rolled and came to a rest in the median and the other was blocking the southbound lanes,” said Trooper Vanessa L. Sevilla, public information officer with the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
Paramedics transported two people to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.
Traffic reportedly backed up for miles until crews could get one lane of southbound travel re-opened.
By 3 p.m., both lanes were back open, reported the Arizona Department of Transportation.
Finally, at 2:45 p.m. Sunday, a blue Toyota passenger car rolled on northbound 87 at milepost 256 for unknown reasons, Sevilla said.
Paramedics took the driver, a woman, to Banner Payson Medical Center where she was treated and released.
Dr. Alfonso Munoz originally planned to work in Payson just a few years when he arrived here in 1978, planning to return to his native Chile.
Now four decades later, Munoz has closed his practice after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Since January, he has been living in the Valley for treatments at Mayo Clinic, but still has a home in Payson.
Munoz and his wife Sue recently sat down with the Roundup to share the story of his 40 years of service to the community.
His initial medical training was in Chile, and it was there he decided he wanted to pursue specialization in vascular surgery. That decision led to two fellowships in the U.S. with leading heart surgeons Dr. Edward Diethrich at the St. Joseph’s Hospital – Arizona Heart Institute, Phoenix, and Dr. Denton Cooley at the Texas Heart Institute – St. Luke’s Hospital, Houston.
“These were magical places, and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to live those experiences,” Munoz said of his study and work with Diethrich and Cooley, whom he considers mentors in a 2015 Roundup article.
When the fellowships ended in 1978, he planned to return to Chile to work in a newly constructed medical facility where he could practice vascular surgery. The work on the new facility was not completed though, so he decided to stay in Arizona.
He opened a private practice in general and vascular surgery in the Snowflake, Show Low and Holbrook area, but brought many of his patients to Payson because the hospital here was better equipped than its counterpart in Navajo County at the time.
His work in the White Mountains went far beyond his specialty. Since the area was isolated, he provided whole person service, including delivering so many babies he had to open a delivery clinic in Snowflake and bring in a nurse-midwife.
A classmate from the University of Chile Medical School in Santiago and a longtime friend was already practicing in Payson — Dr. Luis Coppelli, as was fellow native of Chile, Dr. Claudio Zamorano.
Zamorano decided to return to Chile and invited Munoz to move his practice from the White Mountains to the Rim Country in 1981, sharing offices with Coppelli.
At the time, an introductory article about Munoz was published in the Roundup, he said his friendship with Coppelli and the “quality of the (Lewis R. Pyle Memorial) hospital” enticed him to Payson.
Over the years, practice affiliations changed. Both he and Coppelli joined Banner Health Payson (the clinic) in 1996; in 2008 he joined Arizona Heart Institute until that was sold and the rural offices were closed. In 2013 he joined Community Health Systems in Payson, which operated the hospital. He returned to the Banner Health Clinic practice in 2015 and then joined Western Vascular Institute and its offices in Payson, Mesa and Phoenix in 2017.
As in the White Mountains, when Munoz first started a full-time practice in Payson, he was providing all types of care. But as insurance changed he had to become more specialized.
There was a lot of resistance from patients — mostly older residents — who did not want to change doctors.
He worked in vascular surgery, as well as general and laparoscopic surgery, and held various leadership roles at Payson’s hospital, the Arizona Medical Association and others.
Munoz was instrumental, along with Dr. Judith Hunt and Dr. Alan Michels, in starting the Payson Christian Clinic. He and his wife donated the property and building for the clinic, as well as providing medical support.
He and Sue have also helped fund a variety of scholarships for Gila Community College students through the Friends of Gila Community College and given financial assistance to GCC nursing students for test expenses.
More recently the couple provided funds to purchase the property for Hope House. It helps homeless and underserved people in the area.
Munoz has also served on medical and religious missions in Mexico, where he and his wife donated equipment and started laparoscopic surgery in Rocky Point and provided support for an orphanage and senior center. He was also invited to participate in a medical religious trip to Cuba.
Munoz and his wife are members of Expedition Church. His faith has been a constant companion through his career. He said before every surgery he would pray that his work be for God’s glory and not his own.
On the sometimes harrowing trips taking medical supplies, shoes and clothes to Rocky Point in a packed Suburban, he and Sue would pull to the side of the road and pray that their work be blessed and they would get “a green light at the border crossing and not a red one.” A green light meant they could cross without an inspection, red meant stopping and paying “taxes.”
As busy as his work as a doctor has kept him over the years, Munoz has also had the opportunity to enjoy a variety of sports including running marathons and bicycling — until his knees gave out.
He hiked and did photography, even taking a class in Photoshop from Dr. Harold Rush. Munoz also plays the guitar and enjoys playing the folk music of Chile.
His great sports passion is soccer. He played it as a boy and teen in Chile, coached Payson Parks and Recreation youth soccer, played in a men’s league and helped start and provided the funds for the first two years of the Payson High School soccer program, going so far as to become certified as a substitute teacher so he could serve as the varsity coach.
Munoz can probably take credit for bringing organized soccer to Rim Country.
He wanted to see if there was any interest in the sport among the community’s youngsters and put an ad in the paper. He invited any youngsters interested to come out one evening.
“I was thinking I’d be there by myself. I was shocked when about 60 kids of all ages showed up. I thought I was going to lose my mind trying to teach all of them the fundamentals. There were a couple of adults there and they asked if I needed help. I could see how they handled the ball that they knew soccer, so they helped me out,” Munoz said.
Once the kids “aged” out of youth soccer, there was no place for them to continue with the sport. Club soccer was recognized at Payson High School in 1993, but it was all pay to play — the way most club teams operate.
Munoz and other supporters worked to get things organized to have an actual team and went to the school in 1994. Munoz said he would pay for a high school soccer team for two years and coach it. The team played its first game in September 1994, and included two girls.
Interest grew and a co-ed junior varsity team was fielded and then there were enough players to have both boys and girls teams.
After two years, Munoz did as promised and retired as the coach, but not before he saw his team beat its “archrival” — Camp Verde High School.
Munoz and Sue have been married more than 30 years and have a blended family of six children, 17 grandchildren and will soon have a great-grandchild as well. They have children in Chile, Los Angeles, New York City and the Valley.
“They are all close, just as if they’d been babies together,” Sue said.
Munoz said the family stays connected through the “WhatsApp,” calling themselves Munoz Minions.
Since his diagnosis, the couple has enjoyed a number of visits from most of their children. That diagnosis has also deepened the bond between the couple.
“Day by day, hour by hour, second by second, I could not get through this without Sue,” Munoz said, tearing up.
They originally planned to retire in 2000 and open a plant nursery, travel the world and bring back exotic plants for Rim Country homeowners.
He has no regrets about not making that return to his native country to continue his career.
“This is a beautiful community. We have been blessed with friends and a church family. I have been blessed to do what I love and made my patients friends,” Munoz said.
Contact the reporter at email@example.com
Dealing with facility problems is nothing new for the Gila County Board of Supervisors. It has heard one plan after another for years and paid for any number of building and feasibility studies. Then, projects always stall out.
The board is giving it another go, looking at $9.96 million in proposed capital improvements: $5.1 million in the Payson area and $4.85 in the Globe area.
At its April 16 meeting, the BOS approved the list of projects.
Projects include the purchase and remodel of:
• A building at 112 W. Cedar Lane for the probation department and juvenile restoration, which includes a youth center;
• Improvements to the Gila County Sheriff’s Office on Main Street;
• Remodeling the NAPA building and moving the health department in along with emergency services;
• Demolishing the structures at 107 and 201 W. Frontier St.;
• Building a new 10,000 square-foot Superior Court facility to hold jury trials and offer office space for the assessor, recorder, superintendent of schools, treasurer and board of supervisors, plus conference rooms and other spaces. The project also includes the construction of a “sally port” from the jail to the courtrooms for the transfer of prisoners.
County Manager James Menlove gave estimated costs for the projects, telling the board they are on the “high” end. The bulk of the funding — $9.9 million — will be through bond financing, with $600,000 coming from the county’s capital improvement budget (CIP).
Menlove sought the supervisors’ approval for the project list so work can begin on site development, engineering and design.
“We’re not going to increase taxes. We will build the debt service into the budget over the next 20 years,” he explained.
Cost estimates for the Payson work:
• Probation relocation: $300,000 bonded funds for purchase and $50,000 from CIP budget for remodel
• Gila County Sheriff’s Office: $1.1 million bonded funds for remodel and $150,000 bonded funds to build sally port for a total of $2.55 million
• New building at 700 S. Beeline: $2.55 million in bonded funds and $150,000 in additional bonded funds to build a sally port for prisoner transfer into new court facility
• Beeline and Main County Complex: $550,000 in bonded funds for demolition of structures, grading, drainage and parking lot pavement
• 110 W. Main (NAPA building): $200,000 from CIP budget for remodel
• 608 E. Hwy. 260: $50,000 from CIP budget for remodel to address security concerns
The Globe area projects include building a new animal control facility, $3 million bonded funds; jail improvements, $1.1 million bonded funds; paving and remodeling the BOS hearing room, $500,000 bonded funds; remodeling the county building at 157 S. Broad St. (Michaelson Building) for offices, $100,000 from CIP budget; improvements to the fairgrounds, $200,000 from CIP budget.
“I appreciate the costs have been overestimated. These are project we absolutely have to do for liability issues,” said District One Supervisor Tommie Martin.
District Three Supervisor Woody Cline agreed.
“We made a commitment to the courts and we’ve looked and looked and everything we’ve seen would cost us more. The security of the 260 property is a big concern. If we have to juggle, so be it,” he said. “It’s a good start.”
Board Chair and District Two Supervisor Tim Humphrey asked if the cost estimates include design. Menlove said the estimates include everything but furniture.
“A lot of money has been spent in engineering and designs and it’s all on a shelf somewhere. I don’t want to spend $2 million on engineering and design and do nothing,” Humphrey said.
The effort to return native Gila trout to the streams of the Southwest — especially Rim Country — has encountered a terrifying new barrier.
Fish experts and advocates from all over the Southwest gathered recently in Phoenix to get a progress report on the struggle to return the Gila, Apache and Rio Grande cutthroat trout to at least some of the streams in which they once swam in great numbers.
Rim Country plays a key role in those plans. Fish managers hope to establish breeding populations of Gila trout on several creeks here, as well as “recreational” populations on several major streams. That could draw anglers from all over the country, boosting the local economy.
Years of effort had at one point returned the Gila trout to hundreds of miles of streams. A century of dams and diversions had driven the Gila trout from much of its range. But the real blow came in the form of the stocking of non-native trout like the brown trout and the rainbow trout.
Years of effort to remove non-native trout to make a few streams safe for Gila trout had made progress, when the era of megafires arrived.
The first portent came 20 years ago when the Dude Fire triggered mudflows that smothered the growing population of Gila trout planted in Dude Creek.
Since then, megafires in New Mexico have caused flooding and mudflows on hundreds of miles of streams in which the gleaming golden native trout were making a steady recovery.
After regrouping from disaster, advocates are once more working to reintroduce Gila trout into Rim Country streams, including the East Verde River, Dude Creek and Haigler Creek.
The once-plentiful, now-endangered, native trout has already started to reproduce in Dude Creek.
“That population is really doing great,” said Julie Meka Carter, who heads the Gila Trout Recovery Program in New Mexico.
All the efforts to restore Gila trout involve a handful of genetic lineages, mostly rescued from streams in New Mexico and now bred in fish hatcheries. The limited genetic range of the surviving trout introduces many complications for the recovery effort — since inbreeding can debilitate trout introduced into the wild. Fish managers must carefully mix the handful of Gila trout lineages to increase the odds of success.
Arizona Game and Fish has now started growing Gila trout in the Canyon Creek fishery, below the Rim off Highway 260. Previously, Arizona relied on fish bred at the federal Morro Fish Hatchery in New Mexico. Hatchery managers have had to cope with a host of unexpected problems, but have made progress toward breeding trout for recreational streams.
Wildlife managers not only want to save a trout species with unique genetics well adapted to the small, warm streams of the Southwest, they also hope to foster a booming business in outdoor recreation. One recent study found that 170,000 people come to Gila County each year for recreation centered on streams and lakes — which is roughly four times the county’s whole population. Roughly a third of those visitors like to fish.
Carter said the master plan for recovery envisions breeding populations of Gila trout in portions of Haigler and Dude creeks — which means first removing all non-native trout and other fish that prey on the native trout. The plan also calls for putting the Gila trout in streams where anglers could catch them, including the East Verde, Ellison Creek, Workman Creek, the West Fork of Oak Creek, the Lower Verde and the Lower Salt rivers.
The Gila trout are much more wild than rainbows, even when grown in a hatchery. They’re also probably more tolerant of warm water and do better on the kinds of small streams with fewer deep pools that predominate in Arizona. However, they generally can’t survive to breed on streams with fish-eating brown trout and readily interbreed with rainbow trout. However, even in the recreational fisheries, the plan calls for the release of fertile Gila trout, while in most cases the rainbows are sterilized.
The normal difficulties of saving an endangered species have been enormously complicated by the dawn of the age of megafires in the Southwest.
These high-intensity crown fires like the Rodeo-Chediski and the Wallow Fire not only consume half a million acres at a gulp, they roar from treetop to treetop and burn more intensely than the ground fires that dominated before the arrival of Europeans.
The superheated fires sear the soil so it doesn’t absorb rainwater, leading to flooding that scours out streams and wipes out trout populations. That’s why the Wallow Fire wiped out another stream where the Gila trout had been reintroduced — Raspberry Creek.
Such fires have devastated hundreds of miles of streams harboring Gila trout in New Mexico in the past several years,
Some of those streams devastated by fires in recent years have made little recovery, Carter said. Fires in 2017 wiped out three more populations of trout, some of which had been perking along for years in streams in a wilderness area. On the other hand, Game and Fish and federal biologists are attempting to return the Gila trout to several of the New Mexico streams that have recovered from the effects of fires in 2016.
Some of the trout rescued from the ruined streams in New Mexico were moved to Dude Creek as well as a several creeks and reservoirs around Mount Graham and southeastern Arizona.
The loss of whole populations have shifted the recovery strategy to emphasis “metapopulations” — on drainages with connected streams.
“The idea is that in times of drought or fire those fish have places to move for refuge — to create a supposedly more resilient population,” said Carter.