When asked about his personal thoughts on the recent flash floods near Payson that claimed the lives of nine members of an extended family, Sedona Fire District Assistant Chief Jeff Piechura summed them up in one word.
“Tragic — there are no other words to describe it,” he said. Piechura and engineer Allen Schimberg, who serves as SFD’s technical rescue training team manager, discussed not only the tragic events of Saturday, July 15, but the concerns they have of something like that happening closer to home.
“If you get a report in an area where there’s a high concentration of people and such a massive event like that, the first things I would think of would be the logistics that are going to be involved in a rescue, the amount of resources it will take and how extensive of an operation it’s going to be,” said Schimberg, a 16year veteran of the SFD.
He said there are a lot of unknowns that go into a rescue of that kind including the number of people that are missing, their whereabouts and the distance from where the event took place to where the rescue operation may conclude. Gaining access is also a concern because in an ideal situation, they want to have personnel on both sides of the creek or river.
“If you have multiple locations where people may be trapped, each rescue effort will be a pretty complex and involved scenario,” he said. “Having enough trained and qualified people is a big deal. That type of incident [Payson] becomes more of a regional thing since we don’t have the number of resources just within our district.”
In those cases, outside agencies from Coconino and Yavapai counties, as well as the U.S. Forest Service, Department of Public Safety and neighboring fire departments would be requested to assist. Schimberg said swift-water rescues — via rising creek water or flash floods — are some of the most dangerous types of calls fire personnel can respond to.
“It’s so unpredictable,” he said. “There are so many different dynamics involved.”
While flash flooding in the Sedona area is not common, Schimberg said they can occur without warning. He pointed to the 2008 flooding at Tlaquepaque, which was caused following a microburst higher up in the canyon.
That’s why areas like Slide Rock, West Fork and other popular spots along the creek are a concern for the SFD because of the number of people gathered in one location and often the limited number of exit points.
Preparing for swift-water rescues — while not an exact science — is slightly easier to predict than flash floods, Schimberg said. SFD monitors weather patterns in higher elevations and upstream, while flash floods can come out of nowhere.
“There’s a little bit more of a warning or advance notification versus a massive thunder cell that develops over an area that may or may not have been burned previously,” he said. “Those are much less predictable. As far as the response goes and coming up with a plan, a lot of the same principles go into both types of rescues.”
While Mother Nature can’t be controlled, Schimberg said there are things people can do ahead of time to ensure their activities along the creek or in a canyon are as safe as possible. He said it’s important to remember that storms five, 10 or 20 miles away can cause a problem for you even if it appears to be a nice day where you are.
This time of year, with the monsoon, that likelihood is increased. It’s important for people to look at what the weather is expected to be that day in the overall region.
“If you’re recreating on a creek somewhere and you see big storms cells developing off in the horizon, understand that could impact the area you’re at even though the sun is shining down on you,” he said. “You need to prepare for that possibility.”
In terms of preparation, the 18 members of the SFD team train several times a year on a variety of techniques and scenarios. In all, each member gets in about 30 to 40 hours of training a year in addition to classroom time or any refresher courses.
While some years there may be as few as one swift water rescue, Schimberg said in the last year throughout the Verde Valley that number has risen dramatically. This also means an increase in the possibility of a first responder being injured.
“It’s a high-risk operation,” Piechura said. “You’re battling Mother Nature and you’re also dealing with human nature in regard to the victim or victims. You can’t predict either one. This is why they train so hard to ensure they make the right decision at the right time given the information available to them.
“Sedona is one of those agencies that continuously utilizes technical rescue skill sets. This TRT team is one of the best I’ve ever seen. They all train and have the expertise but the application of those skills and the ability to perform in a variety of conditions is what makes them top notch.”