While the pandemic races on and vaccines are just rolling out, many want to put 2020 behind them and never look back.

From the COVID pandemic to a slew of disasters, getting over the pain of 2020 may take some time.

But if 2020 taught us anything it is that the Rim Country is resilient.

The Roundup staff recently pored through the year’s archives and while there were many challenging moments, there were just as many stories of the community pulling through and helping each other.

Like this year’s Payson Area Food Drive, which has surpassed last year’s totals with nearly $75,000 collected so far. With the drive continuing through early February, organizers recently upped the goal from $50,000 to $85,000.

Or the Payson Police Department’s annual Beards on Patrol cancer fundraiser.

This year, officers collected $4,600, giving the money to a local man battling Stage 4 color cancer.

And in Pine and Payson, quilters sewed hundreds of face masks, donating many to the local hospital. Payson High School used its 3D printer to print face masks.

Here we look back at the moments that made 2020, with each staff member pulling the top stories from their beats.

Wildfires abound

The Rim Country experienced one of the most devastating wildfire seasons in years with the hottest Arizona summer on record and a non-existent monsoon.

A massive swath of land, stretching from outside Fountain Hills to Tonto Basin, was torched during the Bush Fire.

The fire started in June after a vehicle caught fire off State Route 87 east of Fountain Hills.

The fire quickly spread through the desert, being driven by hot, dry and blustery conditions. It burned over the Four Peaks and raced toward Punkin Center and Tonto Basin. Both communities were evacuated.

The fire ballooned, growing to more than 100,000 acres as crews rushed to get a handle on the blaze, which tore through the rugged landscape. Highway 87 was closed and officials put everything on the 87 and State Route 188, acting as fuel breaks and keeping the fire from spreading further north into Gisela and Payson.

Firefighters were able to keep the fire contained below the 188, and after two weeks, the fire was nearly 100% contained.

The fire burned just under 200,000 acres.

On the heels of the Bush Fire, the Polles Fire started in July.

The lightning-sparked fire started approximately 11 miles west of Payson and six miles south of Pine-Strawberry.

The fire was only accessible by helicopter, which was used to shuttle in supplies and ground crews.

A pilot was killed when his helicopter crashed north of the blaze on a supply run.

Bryan “BJ” Boatman, 37, with Airwest Aviation, was hauling supplies to hotshot crews.

Rocky Gilbert, an operations chief on the fire, said that “… once he (Boatman) knew that his helicopter was going to go down, he pulled that away from where all the folks were and set that helicopter down in an area away from our firefighters.”

“This tragic loss is a reminder of the ever-present dangers faced by those battling wildfires,” said Gov. Doug Ducey. “As a helicopter pilot, Bryan Boatman was carrying out a service to the people of Arizona alongside the men and women fighting the Polles Fire. He performed his duty with honor and bravery, and it will be remembered as such by our state. My deepest condolences go out to Bryan’s family and loved ones. Our prayers are with them and all of Arizona’s wildland firefighters working day and night to keep us safe.”

The fire was contained to roughly 600 acres and no homes or structures damaged.

Then, in October, there was a fire north of Horton Springs.

Crews made an aggressive initial attack and the fire was knocked down in an afternoon.

The fire was contained to less than five acres.

Rawlings charged

In April, the Gila County Sheriff’s Office wrapped up its investigation, sending a lengthy report to the Gila County Attorney’s Office on the three children who drowned in Tonto Creek after the truck they were riding in got stuck at one of the crossings on Thanksgiving weekend in 2019.

Daniel and Lacey Rawlings of Show Low in December pleaded not guilty to charges of child abuse and manslaughter.

A grand jury indicted Daniel Grant Rawlings on three counts of reckless manslaughter and seven counts of child abuse, while his wife, Lacey Lynn Rawlings was indicted on seven counts of child abuse.

On Nov. 29, 2019, Daniel reportedly drove a large military-style truck around a road closed barricade with Lacey and seven children aboard into a flooded Tonto Creek, killing two of their children and a niece.

Daniel, Lacey and four other children survived while Willa, 6, Colby, 5, and Austin, 5, drowned.

In court documents, filed by Bradley Soos, chief deputy county attorney, the state alleges Daniel recklessly caused the death of three children using a dangerous instrument, a motor vehicle. It also alleges Daniel and Lacey each committed child abuse by placing the seven children in a situation where they were endangered.

Rep. Walt Blackman, District 6, asked the county attorney to reevaluate charging the couple.

The Gila County Attorney’s Office has repeatedly stated in court documents that they will not be giving the Rawlings plea offers.

Plane crashes into Mazatzals Friday, killing one

There is at least one fatal plane crash in Rim Country every year, and 2020 was no different.

In late January, a man was killed and two others survived when their plane crashed into the Mazatzal Mountains south of Payson.

The men, all of Mesa, were reportedly returning to the Valley after stopping in Payson to refuel when their plane dropped off the radar, according to Sgt. Dennis Newman with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office.

Passenger Blaine Mathews, 59, died in the crash while pilot Colten Egbert, 21, and passenger Spencer Berns, 29, survived.

The men had left the Valley’s Falcon Field earlier in the morning, flown around the Mazatzal Mountains reportedly scouting for wildlife and stopped in Payson. After refueling, they took off at 9 a.m. and reportedly continued to scout near North Peak of the Mazatzals before clipping a tree and crashing into a canyon.

Sheriff’s office changes

There were quite a few changes at the Gila County Sheriff’s Office in 2020.

In August, Sheriff Adam Shepherd was elected to a third term, easily defeating opponents in the primary and general.

He faced four opponents in the primary and a Democrat in the general.

Upon seeing the votes, Shepherd said he felt honored that residents would put “their faith in me once more.”

“I’ve never wanted more than to serve my community,” he said. “That’s not a commercial, it’s always what I have really felt.”

Shepherd has served as Gila County sheriff for the past eight years.

Earlier in the year, Shepherd created a few waves when he removed Chief Deputy Johnny Sanchez. Sanchez had been with the GCSO for 13 years.

The Roundup requested Sanchez’s last employment review, which Shepherd conducted in late December last year. Shepherd wrote that Sanchez excelled in the part of the job that required law enforcement knowledge and tactical skills, but lacked in other areas.

In December, Shepherd announced Sgt. Matt Binney would serve as the next undersheriff, the third in command.

Binney served eight years in the Army during which he was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He followed that by earning back-to-back degrees from the University of Arizona, including his undergraduate in natural resource management and a master’s degree in nursing in 2013.

Fire leadership changes

There were a number of changes at local fire districts.

Hellsgate Fire Chief John Wisner retired in October and immediately took over the chief position at the Pine-Strawberry Fire Department.

Wisner replaced Gary Morris, who had been with the department since 2014.

Wisner, meanwhile, had served with Hellsgate his entire firefighting career, spanning some 30 years.

With Wisner gone and the Payson council noncommittal on an agreement for the Payson Fire Department to provide chief services, Hellsgate went it alone.

The fire board hired Morey Morris to act as a part-time chief.

Biggest story on social media

In December, the Gila County Sheriff’s Office put out a call for the public’s help after a game camera caught a couple reportedly stealing a hunter’s camp gear off the Young Road.

And a response they did get.

The post, shared widely, garnered at least 1,000 comments, including a comment from one of the suspects.

Within 10 minutes of posting, the GCSO had identified the two suspects.

Contact the editor at abechman@payson.com

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