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Changes and improvements made after deadly Payson flood

Posted at 7:55 PM, Jul 13, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-15 09:15:28-04

One year after the deadly Payson flash flood, ABC15 has emails and reports from the days before the tragedy showing what National Forest Service officials knew about the danger.

On July 15, 2017, ten peoplewere sweptaway and drowned near the Water Wheel area in the Tonto National Forest. The Gila County Sheriff's Office organized the search and recovery efforts.

"There always is after any type of an incident like this, what more could be done and it all comes back to this is a tough area to do anything," GCSO Sgt. Dennis Newman said.

The Forest Service's BEAR team had been working since late June on studying the nearby Highline Complex fire's impact on the watershed and landscape. 

One report said, "There will be an increase in peak flows, runoff, stream bulking, flooding and debris flow hazard, and downstream sedimentation."

Their documents explain how monsoon storms were expected to bring massive flash floods, but the emails and reports reviewed by ABC15 did not discuss the danger to the hundreds of people who recreate miles downstream on summer weekends. 

The BEAR team did coordinate with the National Weather Service to install a rain gauge in the burn area.

"Whenever there's a fire scar like that, we can set up an automatic rain gauge, so we know exactly how much rain is falling," said Tony Merriman from the National Weather Service in Flagstaff.  

The gauge readings on July 16 prompted the forecasters to issue a flash flood warning 90 minutes before the people drowned. However, most people on the river failed to get the emergency warning because there is no cell phone reception nor alarm or siren system. NOAA weather radios do get reception in the area.

This year, the sheriff's office said it would implement an emergency evacuation if another flash flood warning is issued.

"A patrol supervisor, anybody having any supervisory capacity, would probably direct people to get out there," Newman said. "If it's a crowd, with PA systems on a truck, we can certainly utilize that to warn people."

The Tonto National Forest also added signs near the river warning of the continued flash flooding potential.

The agency is using Twitter to spread monsoon season safety messages.