Water Wheel Falls

The pool below the waterfall at Water Wheel draws people every weekend in the summer. However, the canyon is now vulnerable to mudflows rushing off the Highline Fire scar in a heavy monsoon downpour.

In response to the flood that killed 10 people on the East Verde River on July 15, the Tonto Forest has closed the recreation areas off of the East Verde and Ellison Creeks until the end of August.

But the flood has also exposed a pile of unanswered questions for the Forest Service and the Gila County sheriff.

Officials from both agencies agonized over the flood that ripped through two bureaucracies creating a chain of events that resulted in tragedy.

Yet in reality, the Cold Springs drownings represent the new normal.

The forecast for this past weekend called for thunderstorms, with a chance of heavy rainfall once again on the Highline Fire scar. That means the slopes could easily generate another mudflow.

Last week, a trailer park in Mayer was covered in a layer of mud as a result of the Goodwin Fire that burned in June. Rescuers pulled two people from the floodwaters and at least 17 people ended up in a Red Cross shelter.

Seven years ago during the 2010 monsoon after the Schultz Fire in Flagstaff, a 12-year-old girl died and dozens of homes were covered in muck from a mudslide.

In the calm after the storm of the searches and publicity of the Cold Springs catastrophe, both the Forest Service and the Gila County sheriff said they will consider policy changes to prevent a repeat of the tragedy.

Debbie Cress, head ranger of the Payson Ranger District, said the Forest Service’s responsibility is the stewardship of the land.

Because of this jurisdictional burden, finding a way to communicate is a priority.

“Moving forward there will be a lot of conversations ... we will be answering a lot of questions ... (and) ... we will continue to answer those questions,” she said. “That’s where it is for me.”

The key questions in some ways fall into the cracks between the missions of the two agencies.

The sheriff’s office focuses on public safety, but doesn’t monitor weather forecasts or assess hazards based on things like erosion off a burn area. The Forest Service generally issues general warnings about monsoon flooding, but doesn’t have the manpower to go into areas and warn people about an impending hazard.

The National Weather Service issued flash flood warning for the area an hour or two before the flood hit, taking hundreds of people still swimming in the narrow canyons above Houston Mesa Road by surprise. No system existed to dispatch sheriff’s deputies into the canyon to warn people of the hazard.

Cress said she hopes having collaborative conversations with the various agencies responsible for safe recreation on the forest will yield a solution.

Gila County Sheriff Adam Shepherd said he and the Forest Service have an agreement to work together.

“We have a cooperative agreement with them,” he said, “We will help with enforcement and patrolling the forest.”

Shepherd said statutorily, the Gila County sheriff has the responsibility for search and rescue and public safety in the forest, but they are not land managers.

“Determining where and when a flood would happen — we are not the experts,” said Shepherd,. “A geologist and hydrologist would better know that ... if they brought a concern to us about public safety, we would take that on.”

He welcomes a conversation about protecting visitors to the forest.

Cress said collaborative conversations have begun and she sees hope.

“We have started to see good progress with Payson,” she said. “A group of multiple trail use groups from single track to hiking ... our relationships with Gila County ... meeting together at the beginning of the fire season .... Those meetings are early now, but we are starting to see some progress.”

In this particular case, however, because the Forest Service B.A.E.R. team’s suppression report on erosion, flooding and restoration after the Highline Fire has not been issued, she could not comment on details of that team’s effort regarding the core of the fire scar.

She did say that before the Type 1 incident team left the Highline Fire, it left mulch and water bars to help direct water and boulder barriers to keep recreationists away from the exposed land.

“We have exposed soil. We have created an unnatural setting,” she said. “We started assessing those lines (and) began that repair work before leaving the fire. What we have done is we have placed big boulders to keep people out. We took material such as mulch along Bonita Creek to help it heal. We don’t want to incur any more erosion.”

The initial focus was on areas damaged by the firefighting effort itself. Assessing the state of the watershed represents a far larger and more complicated problem.

Cress said the firefighters focused on the areas where they had disrupted the soil and vegetation. Mostly the team focused on the east and west edges of the Highline Fire because that is where most of the soil disruption occurred.

Cress said in the drainages, such as Ellison and Bonita Creek, the Forest Service has focused on removing debris.

“We had a little bit of work done on Ellison and Bonita to clear out bigger logjams.”

For now, however, to protect those on the waterways below the Highline Fire, the creeks are closed while heavy monsoons persist.

contact the reporter at: mnelson@payson.com

I cover the Town of Payson, courts, wildfire, business, families, non-profits, the environment and investigative reporting

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