Tucked back in dimly lit locker room away from the rows of cots in the gym at Payson High School, Makayla Baca petted her dog Scooby, a Chihuahua mix Friday.
For the last 18 hours, they had huddled up at the school, unable to get out of Payson after a storm forced officials to close every highway in and out of town.
Baca was headed from Fountain Hills to Pinetop Thursday when the storm closed in. She slept in the locker room with two couples she had never met before. One had a small dog and the other had four Labradors. Out in the gym slept some 55 other people — all stranded.
They were lucky.
At the Maverik gas station, at least two people and a family slept in their vehicles overnight. To stay warm, they would run their heaters every few hours.
Darpan Phuwel was headed from the Valley to Nebraska with a delivery when he got stuck at the station.
Like most, Baca and Phuwel had heard the forecast calling for snow, but were not prepared for what they saw when they arrived in Rim Country.
Ken Edelblute, a Red Cross volunteer who set up the Payson shelter, was surprised too.
He arrived Wednesday with a Red Cross trailer and two others from Red Cross. He doubted they would need to open so they didn’t unload the trailers, confident they would head back to the Valley soon. Little did he know the storm would deliver so much snow the mayor of Payson would have to call a state of emergency to get additional snowplows to the area.
By Thursday morning, the storm had dumped 28 inches on Payson.
Local Red Cross volunteers were unable to get out of their homes and to the high school to help set up. The police department had to use ATVs to get their own officers out of their homes and to work.
Still, by noon, Edelblute had the shelter open. Within half an hour, they had 20 people checked in who needed a warm place to wait out the storm.
Throughout the day more motorists trickled in and continued to come until 2:30 a.m.
In all, there were some 60 people at the shelter, including 20 children.
And just three dedicated volunteers.
Frank Espinoza was headed to Winslow with his family of seven in a minivan when they got to Payson around 9:30 a.m. Thursday. They found State Route 87 north closed. Before they could head back, officials closed State Route 87 south after a semi spun out at Corvair Curve.
They looked for a hotel room, but they were already sold out by 1 p.m.
Espinoza barely got his minivan to the dome parking lot at the high school. He slid out near the entrance and it sat there buried in snow until Friday when he finally shoveled it out and moved it across the parking lot. His 10-year-old son said he was a little scared sleeping in the gym, but mostly he was cold.
“I have never seen snow before,” the boy said while his dad worked to push two feet of snow off the minivan’s roof.
At a number of businesses, workers were reportedly unable to get home and had to shelter in the stores until they could get their vehicles dug out the next day.
Around town, vehicles slid on roadways, in parking lots and driveways.
Even the fire department had an engine, with chains, slide off the road.
With all the forewarning, the Payson Fire Department brought on extra firefighters and was ready when the storm hit.
“We saw a 100 percent increase in call volume,” said a battalion chief.
The bulk of calls were for falls on the ice. One firefighter slipped and sprained his leg.
They also had to carry several people from their homes who needed medical attention who could not walk down their snow-covered driveways.
They even carried one man back to his home, some 400 feet up his snowy driveway, after he was released from the hospital.
While the department normally has 10 firefighters on duty, they had 16 during the peak of the storm to handle calls. Some firefighters spent hours just shoveling so the trucks could get out of the station.
Beyond medical calls, the fire department responded to one down power line on South Ponderosa Street Thursday night. That knocked power out to some 2,200 people for several hours Thursday night. When the line went down, it started an electrical fire in a furnace of a home nearby. Firefighters contained the flames and the home was not damaged.
There were additional power outages throughout Rim Country, including Tonto Basin, Pine-Strawberry and around Payson.
On Sunday, another furnace caught fire, this time at a business in the 800 block of North Beeline Highway, in the Swiss Village Shops. Again, firefighters contained the fire and the building was saved.
One of the more laborious rescues occurred when a man needed medical transport from Young for a diabetic emergency.
The call came in at 8 p.m. to the Pleasant Valley Fire Department.
LifeLine Ambulance, knowing they could not make it to the call due to impassable roads, contacted Forest Lakes Fire requesting a snowcat. The search and rescue crew with Forest Lakes Fire paramedics responded near Young. The crew traveled approximately 12 miles toward Young during heavy snowfall with visibility down to 10 feet. They arrived at the patient shortly after 10 p.m. and it took several hours to get him out to the highway and ultimately to Banner Payson Medical Center.
In Pine, the Pine-Strawberry Fire District spent two days leading up to the snowstorm planning with the Gila County Emergency Management Office, the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, the Red Cross and other agencies. The fire department opened a warming shelter in their training room with staff from the American Red Cross. The shelter housed three people, including a couple whose car slid off the road and into a ditch.
PSFD used two snowcats to respond to nearly 30 requests for assistance from Pine-Strawberry residents. These requests included replacing empty oxygen cylinders, welfare checks and starting generators.
In total, Pine got 36 inches of snow, “the largest one-time snowfall in nearly two decades,” said Chief Gary Morris.
The last time Morris saw that much snow in Arizona was 1967.
He was stationed at Luke Air Force Base then.
“On my two days off-shift, I volunteered to staff a Korean War era C-119 cargo plane that was air dropping bales of hay for cattle on ranches and the reservation,” he said. “We’d eyeball a herd of cattle, drop to 200 feet and when the pilot hit the buzzer, we’d push out six bales at a pass.”
In Payson, fire officials said it was the most snow they had dealt with while on shift.
“It was definitely unique,” they said.
On the roadways, the Arizona Department of Transportation closed the highways when it became unsafe to travel north to Winslow and east to Heber.
One officer said he found a man walking in the closure area on State Route 260 near the Rim. The man was reportedly trying to get home to the White Mountains and said he wasn’t worried too much about the storm. Concerned, the officer drove him to Heber.
ADOT deployed 200 snowplows and 400 snowplow operators to clear the highways across the state, working around the clock in 12-hour shifts to keep plows on the roads 24 hours a day.
After the storm had passed, Mayor Tom Morrissey declared an emergency due to the “excessive” snowfall on Feb. 21 and 22. This helped the town get more resources to help dig out.
Don’t expect anything to change right away, but the Forest Service would like to eventually nearly double the number of people visiting Fossil Creek and let off-roaders once again use the road from Strawberry down to the creek.
Unfortunately, none of the plans under consideration will have any immediate impact on the dangerous strain put on search and rescue teams by the previous closure of the two main routes used to reach stranded and injured visitors.
Forest Service officials say they’ll work with emergency responders to address that problem separately from the legally mandated development of the Fossil Creek Management Plan.
After more than three years of study, the Forest Service has released five alternative plans to manage Fossil Creek, which draws hoards of summer visitors to a “wild and scenic” creek that also serves as a priceless refuge for a host of endangered species.
Congress nearly a decade ago designated Fossil Creek as one of just two “wild and scenic” stream sections in Arizona, which requires a comprehensive management plan.
Planners unveiled the five alternative plans in a series of public meetings, with an April 4 deadline for public comments. The plan will likely go into effect in about a year.
But here’s the catch: The Forest Service doesn’t have any money to implement any of the plans.
That means no matter which plan the Forest Service ultimately adopts, visitation will be limited to about 148 cars per day in the summer for the foreseeable future.
Moreover, none of the plans include the money needed to reopen the road from Strawberry to the creek — even for search and rescue crews.
In addition, only plan F envisions reopening the road that used to lead from the Irvine hydroelectric power plant to the spring source, another major problem for rescue crews. Even if the Forest Service adopts Plan F, it has no money to actually build a new bridge and restore the road.
In addition, none of the plans contemplate reopening the road that used to lead from the Irvine hydroelectric power plant to the spring source, another major problem for rescue crews.
Lacking even ATV road access to miles of the creek, rescue crews have to carry people out for miles on stretchers.
Fossil Creek Coordinator Marcos Roybal said all of the plans would be phased in gradually, with the existing permit system in place to prevent overuse.
“Although large numbers of people in Fossil Creek did cause problems in the past,” he said, “impacts such as traffic congestion and the proliferation of bare soil and trash occurred in a relatively unmanaged recreation environment.”
With careful management addressing the recreation site, road, and trail design and managing the location and timing of recreational use, it is anticipated that Fossil Creek could support more visitors than today without negatively impacting natural and cultural values and the recreation experience. Any visitor number increases would be incremental.
However, that incremental approach largely ignores the complaints of search and rescue teams.
Although the number of rescues dropped sharply with the imposition of the permit system several years ago, missions have still strained crews.
Largely volunteer Gila County rescue crews have conducted hundreds of rescue missions in the canyon, including responding to five drownings.
Closure of two roads has increased the average time it takes to undertake a rescue from about two hours to more like seven or eight hours.
The Forest Service designated as the “preferred alternative” a plan that allows ATVs to eventually use an improved road from Strawberry as well as increase the number of cars allowed into the area from the present 148 to about 270 cars per day during the peak use periods.
That would result in about 1,400 people in the canyon daily, with the current permit system remaining in place in the warm months. Plan E would also allow limited camping in developed campgrounds along the creek and add trails throughout the canyon.
None of that would happen right away, since the plan doesn’t include money for making improvements.
Implementing Alternative E would require expensive work on FR 708 to make sure rocks won’t roll down off the steep hillside to injure hikers or ATV drivers. It would also envision the addition of parking and visitor facilities at Cactus Flat, Heinrich and Irvine to handle the big increase in car traffic.
The plan would also require the construction of new trails for bikes, hikers and riders.
New trails would include a short stretch along the rim of the canyon near the Rim Trailhead outside of Strawberry. It also includes a new, roughly two-mile-long trail that leads from a big new parking area at Cactus Flat to the old power plant location.
The plan allows camping at a few designated areas year-round.
Alternative E also would establish a Botanical Area where the chain of springs that feed the creek bubble to the surface. It’s unclear whether people would be allowed in the botanical area.
Currently, many people hike down to the springs on the tough, four-mile-long Fossil Springs Trail from the Rim Country side. The trail descends 1,500 feet and has prompted many rescues of injured or dehydrated hikers.
The preferred alternative would also develop a new trailhead for the existing Fossil Springs Trail, which would connect with the existing Mail Trail and the existing Flume Trail in the bottom of the canyon.
The springs harbor several endangered species. In addition, the Yavapai and Tonto Apache say the springs have spiritual and cultural significance and have pressed for greater protections.
Alternative E would also include nine recreation sites with parking along the creek. More parking would be developed at Cactus Flat, from which people could easily walk down to the creek.
Forest Service officials have held a series of public meetings to invite public comment on the various alternatives. Planners “prefer” Alternative E, but can still mix and match elements of the various plans based on public comments in the next several months.
It will take at least a year to finish collecting input, making revisions and finalizing the plan.
Fossil Creek Project Coordinator Marcos Roybal said, “Regarding Alternative E, we are calling that the proposed action because it provides flexibility in the longer term to expand facilities, infrastructure, and visitor numbers if appropriate from a river management standpoint. This flexibility is desirable because we recognize that demand for access to Fossil Creek is high and will likely increase in the future and special places like Fossil Creek present opportunities for people to connect with and enjoy their public lands.”
The other alternative plans include:
Alternative B: Enhanced Protections
This plan places the top priority on protecting threatened and endangered species by minimizing the number of people allowed during the peak-use months.
Four species of threatened native fish, a host of birds, mammals and reptiles and a variety of threatened plants are found along the river corridor. The only comparable refuge for native fish in the state is the Little Colorado River in the heart of the Grand Canyon.
This alternative would maintain the existing recreation sites, but sharply limit access to the spring source and the whole stretch of creek above the first big waterfall.
The Enhanced Protection plan would allow 112 vehicles per day and about 560 visitors.
Alternative C: Non-motorized Experience
This plan would concentrate most of the cars at Cactus Flat and Homestead well away from the river corridor.
People would then mostly reach the creek along a network of hiking, biking and riding trails.
During the months of the year when the reservation system isn’t in effect, people would still drive to the existing recreation and parking areas along the creek.
The plan would shut down some of the existing recreation facilities and add trails along the middle section of the creek and down from Strawberry. It would allow limited camping near the primary access points.
This plan would allow 132 vehicles and 660 people per day during the peak season.
Plan D: Motorized Experience
This plan would require spending millions to restore FR 708 so cars could once again drive to the creek from Strawberry. However, the plan also calls for the elimination of some trail access to the springs from the Strawberry side, to create what amounts to a refuge for wildlife from above the first big waterfall all the way to the spring source.
This plan envisions people driving down to the creek and making short stops along the way, without necessarily stopping and parking for hours to enjoy the creek.
The new facilities and infrastructure would be focused on making it easier for people to drive through along the creek, perhaps coming in from Strawberry and leaving by way of Camp Verde.
People could get either a full-day parking permit or a drive-through permit. The plan would ban camping all year round along the river corridor.
Visitor capacity would gradually increase to 169 vehicles a day and 845 people.
Alternative E: Enhanced Recreation (Preferred plan):
This plan aims to maximize recreation, while still protecting the creek. This would require phasing in new facilities as funding becomes available.
The plan expands recreation sites, especially at the Irvine entry point. It would also develop additional trails, restore a portion of FR 708 for ATVs and allow limited year-round camping.
The plan would allow 270 vehicles per day during the permit season and 1,520 people.
Alternative F: Demand-based access
This plan envisions creating big parking areas at Cactus Flat and Homestead, so the Forest Service could eventually do away with the permit system completely.
Most of the visitors would park at one of those two big parking areas, then walk or ride to the creek.
Visitors could park along the creek during the low-use months, but would mostly walk in to the creek during the peak use months.
The plan envisions new trails and parking areas, as well as a year-round camping area near the entry points. This plan would also eventually restore road access — at least for ATVs — along the Flume Trail to the spring.
The Forest Service doesn’t currently have a prospect for the necessary funding.
This plan would mostly eliminate permits and envisions 500 cars a day and as many as 2,500 people.
The public can submit comments in writing through several methods:
• Electronic: E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org (include “Fossil Creek CRMP” in the subject line).
• Regular mail: Mail to Coconino National Forest, Attention: Fossil Creek CRMP, P.O. Box 20429, Sedona, AZ 86341.
• Fax: (928) 203-7539; Attn: Fossil Creek CRMP.
• In person: Provide written comments in person at the Red Rock Ranger District Office, 8375 State Route 179, Sedona, AZ 86351.
A chocolate cake, purple paper crown and a birthday card sat on a table in the emergency room break room all for hospital volunteer Fred Eckel.
Eckel is the oldest working volunteer at the hospital and possibly all of Rim Country, turning 90 Wednesday, Feb. 20.
“I’ve been volunteering at Banner five years in the ER,” Eckel said. “Mondays and Wednesdays, four hours each shift from 8 a.m. to noon.”
And staff love having Eckel around.
“Fred is my favorite,” said Veronica “Roni” Stedman, senior clinical manager in the ER. “He makes my day every time he comes in.”
The ER team all spoke highly of Eckel and happily posed for a photo to celebrate his birthday.
Eckel moved to Payson 30 years ago and has worked and volunteered for many organizations in Rim Country, including Banner Payson Medical Center, Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce, Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge, eight years as junior warden at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and the homeowners association board for Northwoods.
“I like helping different organizations here in town, it keeps me young, keeps me going,” Eckel said. “I’m not a fan of sitting on the couch.”
Eckel worked as a food service director for various organizations including Saga Food Service, which serves colleges and schools.
“I was in charge of the whole food process — I did the menus, planned daily work orders, ordered the food, anything that had to do with the food service. I made sure everything was ready for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and we went out in the dining room and talked to the students or workers to get their opinions of what they liked or disliked.”
Eckel worked for Colorado Women’s College, Regis College, University of Tennessee, University of Hawaii and Sperry Schools in Phoenix. He retired from Mountain Bell in downtown Phoenix at 62.
After he moved to Payson, he worked as a cook for Payson Elementary School for 20 years.
“It was fun,” Eckel said. “All the kids liked me. In fact I met a teacher the other day who said, ‘Oh Fred, I’m so glad to see you.’”
As a volunteer in the ER, Eckel talks with patients and offers encouragement, helps disinfect rooms between patients, stocks supply items, cleans the kitchen and takes out the trash.
“I come in and resupply the rooms, fill up materials the nurses use and clean up the beds when people leave and remake them, and anything else they ask me to do.” Eckel said. “I offer people a hot blanket and I kid around with them a little.”
“I like working here, people are nice, I’ve made some good friends,” Eckel said. “The ER isn’t like it is on television, it’s a nice place to work if you want to volunteer.”
He once went on a quilting cruise to the Bahamas as chaperone to 22 local quilters and has volunteered at the annual quilt show for eight years.
When he’s not volunteering, Eckel said, “I always find something to do either at church or helping somebody.”
His secret for staying young at heart and active: “I don’t argue with anybody, I just go along. I don’t take things so seriously or worry about things like politics. Life’s a lot of fun.”
Payson came within an inch of setting an all-time snow record last week.
Payson’s 31.8 inches came within a whisper of the two-day record snowfall set in 1983 and 1967 (32 inches).
The monster storm snarled traffic, forced the Red Cross to open warming centers, tested the predictive powers of the National Weather Service and gave many Rim Country residents a four-day weekend.
The storm sucked up moisture from the El Niño warmed Pacific then collided with a shot of frigid air from western Canada over Arizona.
The relentless dumping of snow had long-time locals dusting off stories.
Locals in Young recalled the 1967 storm socking ranchers in for up to 30 days before bulldozers could clear their roads. Authorities had to step in to bring slings of hay to livestock and wildlife using C-119 transports from Luke Air Force Base.
Others had stories from the ’83 storm. They said they were fishing on Roosevelt and got snowed in.
Thanks to the early predictions by the National Weather Service, local, county and state emergency departments got out the message to stay home, which most locals did.
Schools, government offices and retail stores closed to keep traffic off the roads.
Even with the warning, stories have already surfaced about this storm.
• Road closures: by Thursday afternoon, all roads in and out of Payson closed.
• Warming shelters: those travelers caught in the road closures had a warm, safe place to stay thanks to the Red Cross and hotels such as the Mazatzal Casino.
• Snow removal: Residents stayed in shape shoveling the driveway over and over. Some places didn’t get cleared until Saturday afternoon.
• Play: some made snowmen 10 feet tall. Others had a snowman sit in a chair or made their first snowman ever.
Justin Johndrow, a meteorologist from the Flagstaff National Weather Service said this storm “definitely lived up to expectations.”
Yet the storm delivered some surprises, too.
“One thing that did not become apparent until early Thursday morning was the slower movement of the storm,” said Johndrow, “This allowed for heavy snow to occur longer in the Flagstaff and Munds Park areas than initially anticipated.”
Kachina Village, just south of Flagstaff reported 48 inches, the heaviest snowfall reported in the state.
The storm also fell in areas that rarely see snow.
“There was significant snow even in lower elevation areas that rarely see more than a few inches a year,” said Johndrow, “There were reports of 2.5 to 4 inches of snow in the Troon North area of far northeast Scottsdale (as reported by the NWS office in Phoenix).”
Overall, predictions for this snow event came earlier and more accurately than in the past.
And there’s a reason for that.
As more satellites populate the skies, covering formerly blind areas in the polar and oceanic regions, meteorologists have more information to work with.
More information coupled with better computing power, equals earlier and more accurate predictions than just a decade ago.
Going forward, Johndrow said this weak El Nino would continue through the spring.
“This tilts the odds slightly in favor of wetter than normal conditions through May, but certainly no guarantees.”