Water Wheel search debris piles

Debris piles near Water Wheel after the 2017 flash flood that killed 10 members of the Garcia family.

A Cave Creek family that lost 10 of its members in a flash flood at Water Wheel in 2017 is suing the federal government for negligence, wrongful death and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

In its lawsuit filed in late February, the Garcia family demanded a jury trial to determine if the lack of a warning from the Forest Service caused the death of its family members, some of whom were as young as 3.

Members of the Garcia family died in a flash flood full of debris from the burn scar left by the Highline Fire on the Ellison Creek watershed. The burn scar provided the perfect fodder for a debris-filled flood to barrel down on the Garcia family as they celebrated a family member’s birthday on a hot day in mid-July 2017 at Water Wheel off of the East Verde River.

Court records list the reasons for negligence as:

1. Failing to warn individuals in the Water Wheel area of the potential for flash floods;

2. Failing to warn individuals in the Water Wheel area of the NWS flood alert that was issued on July 15, 2017;

3. Failing to close the Water Wheel area to the public after the NWS flood alert was issued on July 15, 2017.

The family claims to suffer from mental anguish, pain, and grief from a “preventable” situation, although authorities said the area is so remote, there is no cellphone service.

In a statement, the Garcia family’s lawyers said, “The Garcia family is suing because of the foreseeable and preventable deaths of their family. The victims were killed in Ellison Creek while seeking relief from the summer heat. Unknown to them, a thunderstorm many miles away in the watershed created a devastating watery avalanche of burnt trees, sludge, and debris that tore through the park. The Garcia family was devastated by the loss of the majority of their entire family.”

Many Valley news outlets have followed up on this story.

The Republic did an in-depth piece looking at the danger Forest Service officials knew existed from monsoon storms.

In documents the Republic requested from the Forest Service, “there was no discussion on how to alert visitors.”

The Valley news stories state that since the Garcia tragedy, the Forest Service has added flash flood warning signs to the Water Wheel area, but the family says that is not enough.

In news stories, the Gila County Sheriff’s Office reported it has implemented the Ready, Set, Go program in response to the tragedy. The program explains evacuation tips in case of an emergency, like flooding or wildfire.

But as GCSO Sgt. David Hornung said to the Republic, “When you see an entire generation of a family is gone, that has to affect you ... and when you see their grief, it has to affect you as a family and an agency.”

Contact the reporter at mnelson@payson.com

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