Deadly Waters

A controlled burn led to a flood that devastated Bonito Canyon, killing one man. Residents want to know why they weren't told of the danger ... and they fear the destruction that the next big rain could bring.

On the morning of the last day of Jim Huntington's life, storm cells began to converge over the Galiuro Mountains. At noon, the National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch for the San Pedro River Valley and the northern Santa Catalina Mountains, including the town of Oracle.

As the afternoon of Aug, 14, 2003, progressed, thunderheads moved west across the wide river valley, dropping enough rain to shut down Redington Road near San Manuel for more than an hour.

Around 4, the clouds reached the eastern foothills of the Catalinas and the first big drops began to fall on the steep, fire-blackened northeast face of 6,500-foot Apache Peak, eight miles south of Oracle. Water began sheeting off slopes where a backfire had burned two months before as part of a pre-emptive strike to stop the Aspen Fire's run to the north. Within a half-hour, a gauge just north of the peak on Oracle Ridge had clocked 1.59 inches. The National Weather Service later classified it as a 25-year-return rain.

All that water flowed downhill toward Bonito Canyon, which drains Apache Peak's entire northeast side. The water picked up an immense load of topsoil, ash and charred wood, and it set off rock slides and cut new channels. By the time the water poured into the upper wash near Dean and Laura Prichard's historic High Jinks Ranch, it was moving boulders.

At 4:26, the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning for the area. It was probably some time after that that the floodwaters, having dropped 1,400 feet in just two miles, reached a small group of houses strung along the lower wash.

Huntington's modest place sat lower than the others--just a yard or so above the bank, on the outside curve of 45-degree bend in the canyon. All but two of his neighbors--including his brother, Dr. John Huntington--were still at work or on their way home. The 59-year-old publisher of Oracle's monthly newspaper was at home, alone.

There are no witnesses to say exactly how he died, or when. The only other people known to be in the lower canyon that afternoon, Rose and Shane Milam, saw the flood from their place a half-mile below. They watched as a trickle was compounded by surges, each a foot or two higher than the last. They later described the sound as a crashing, screeching roar--like a freight train wreck.

Hydrologists from the National Weather Service and the U.S. Geological Survey put the peak flow through the canyon that afternoon at 2,000 cubic feet per second. For comparison, the typical flow in Sabino Canyon is about 10 cfs, and its floodpeak so far this year is 4,000 cfs. But Bonito Canyon is a gully compared to Sabino--roughly what Sabino is to the Grand Canyon.

Coming around the bend, the water careened into Jim Huntington's house and the bluff behind it. Watermarks on the walls showed that it engulfed the house to a depth of 5 to 6 feet, which means that the racing water was 10 to 12 feet deep, as measured from the old bottom of the channel. (The washbed is now about three feet higher than before mid-August.) It smashed in the windows and front door, ripping open one of the wood-framed house's downstream corners, carrying away furniture and books and leaving behind three feet of mud. Outside, it stripped everything movable from Huntington's yard, including his Toyota 4-Runner, which it carried 100 yards before ramming it into the side of the next house downstream.

Huntington's grotesquely battered body was found three-quarters of a mile down the canyon later that night.

MOST OF THE 15 or so families who live along Bonito Canyon know one another; many are close friends. Their houses, outbuildings and corrals, many of which have been there for decades, sit on old patented mining claims embedded in the Coronado National Forest. People out here have livestock, wells that sometimes dry up and sometimes flood, and trucks that break down. They've always had to be able to rely on one another.

Nature has been bringing them even closer the last couple of years: Bonito Canyon has been evacuated for two major wildfires in two years. Those who weren't acquainted before the 2002 Oracle Hill Fire are now.

Just about everyone along the wash, and in Oracle for that matter, knew Huntington, a gifted and lovable man who'd become deeply involved in local groundwater contamination and development issues since he'd retired and moved back to his hometown. He'd taken over The Oracle from Dean Prichard, and he'd created and maintained a remarkable Web site,, a clearinghouse of information about the UA's toxic waste dump near Oracle Junction. He'd chosen to live just a hundred yards from his brother.

When the roads from Oracle and San Manuel re-opened the evening of Aug. 14, the people who live along the wash came home to a new landscape. Rocks had rolled; banks had collapsed; trees were gone. New gullies had been cut everywhere; mesquite roots jutted from the sides of chunked-off hills, and inches of slick black ash-slime coated every surface. Strips of corrugated roofing tin were wrapped like ribbons around rocks and tree trunks. Everything now pointed downstream.

Laura Valade Prichard, coming home in her Jeep, found that low sections of the road up to High Jinks had become jumbles of boulders. For the homeowners down below, the damage was hard to comprehend. Susan Schiek and John Wasley found that they'd lost 20 chickens, their garden and half an orchard, along with thousands of dollars of tools and equipment that had been swept from their workshop. On the other side of the wash, the Milams were missing a barn and a mobile home.

Upstream, Dr. Sandee Mattson's house was mostly dry, although a bedroom full of antiques had flooded after Huntington's truck punched through the wall. Outside, her double horse trailer, packed with feed and tack, had disappeared--along with a hay ramada and sheds, tools, lawn furniture, a steel water tank and, of course, her hose. (Everyone lost hoses. The wicker-like debris festooning the trees and rocks along the wash is still laced with green rubber.)

For some reason, a child's pool sat just where it was before, but a gas barbecue had been dragged for yards. Shoals and thickets of tree branches and random objects clogged the yard, which was two feet higher than it had been that morning. Her front steps were buried and the fence was gone. Both her wells were flooded--and still are. Mattson's horses and two cats were all wild-eyed but unhurt. Her yard dog, though, was a mess.

"The stake he'd been tied to was completely buried--all you could see was the rope coming up out of the mud," she said. "He must have been swimming around and around. When I got home he was catatonic, and he shook and ground his teeth all night."

The next morning, she took him to recuperate with a friend who has since adopted him. "I couldn't expect him to live here anymore," Mattson said.

The fact that Huntington's truck wasn't in his yard kept his stunned neighbors from checking on him right away; his brother and the others who drove past his house and assumed that he'd gone somewhere. It was only after word got around that it had been found sticking out of Mattson's house that the panic began.

Around 9:20, John Huntington called 911 and reported his brother missing. Other calls were ricocheting up and down the canyon.

"Cinnamon (Susan Schiek) called us a little after 10 sounding really strange and disoriented," Laura Prichard said. "What she said was, 'I'm at home and there's been a flood and it's a mess. And we can't find Jim.'" The Prichards were close friends of Huntington, and their property hadn't been directly damaged, so they and Cliff Kelly, their maintenance man, headed down the hill to look for him.

Sheriff's deputies who had been out maintaining roadblocks earlier had responded to the 911 call and started searching. They told the Prichards and Kelly to go home, but they searched anyway.

"It was still all clouded over and very dark," Dean Prichard said. "Everything was different in the canyon, and covered with slick black mud. Our flashlights kept fading in and out, and we had to move very slowly, trying not to slip and fall, and to not miss Jim."

Around 11, a light rain began to fall, and the official search was called off until morning. Instead of going home, the Prichards and Kelly got back into their truck and drove further down the canyon, to where the Mount Lemmon Road crosses the wash.

"When it started raining again, of course, we were afraid," said Prichard, 76. "But Laura kept saying, 'Jim could be lying out here with a broken leg, waiting for us to help him before it floods again.' It was a terrible thought. So we kept stumbling around, looking."

Just after midnight, Kelly spotted Huntington's body tangled in a heap of debris jammed against a massive granite boulder. Kelly shouted to Laura to keep away; Dean went over to look.

"I heard him cry out, and then start sobbing. I knew that Jim was dead," Laura said.

They went back up to Schiek and Wasley's and the Milams' and called 911 again. It was about 12:30. "I didn't sleep for a number of days," said Prichard.

There was a fair amount of sleep-deprivation along the wash in the days and weeks that followed. Mattson and her daughter, Alia Lubers, 17, took turns sleeping and watching. Their house was next in line, and the monsoon had just begun.

THE NEXT DAY, as the grieving and disoriented residents of the canyon tried to come to terms with what had happened, help poured in from Oracle.

Friends and Oracle firefighters came out and started helping to dredge mud, and Pinal County Emergency Manager Pete Weaver showed up to assess the damage. County road crews cleared debris from the wash and roads, and temporary dirt berms were built beside John Huntington's and Sandee Mattson's houses. The Huntington family began to gather.

The Tucson media came, too, and collected a crucial piece of misinformation about Huntington's death. That day, Huntington's friends' best guess was that he was taking photos of the flood when it caught him and swept him away. He was both a newspaperman and an avid photographer: If he'd heard the flood coming, they reasoned, he would have grabbed a camera and run outside. It made sense, and the idea that he'd been doing something he loved when he died was a little comfort.

Once volunteers had shoveled the yard-deep mud out of his house, though, they found that all his cameras were still there. And as his friends reconstructed his last day, they concluded that he had probably died with no warning, and very possibly inside the house. He may have been in his bed--he usually lay down to rest in the late afternoon after getting home at 3.

It was also possible that he heard something, stepped outside and was caught there. But the big split in the corner of the house was more than big enough for a man's body to pass through, and much of the contents of the house had been carried out that way. (Mattson later found his Bible in her yard.) A logjam of pillows and bedding was jammed into the opening on the inside, "trying to get out," as Mattson described it.

It appeared that he had had no warning. The fact that the body was found so far downstream was irrelevant: The water carried the frame of Mattson's steel horsetrailer a full mile before wedging it in a pile of rocks, and twisted strips ripped from the walls were strewn along the banks. The Milams' mobile home turned up yet another mile down.

No one living in the canyon could remember such a flood. County workers found an old rancher who said he'd seen something like it in 1953, and there are stories about big floods in the first decade of the 20th century, but records are sketchy, and no useful photographs have turned up.

In any case, the road up to High Jinks had never washed out in the 30 years that Dean Prichard had lived there--not in '93 or in '83. Schiek lost "20 feet of beachfront" when 8 inches of rain fell in four days in October '83, but the water hadn't got close to her orchard or outbuildings. And then there were the watermarks 2 feet up on a 70-year-old adobe on Mattson's property. Before Aug. 14, they weren't there.

The flood seemed to have been unprecedented. So what would happen next time it rained?

"I've had people say, 'Well you were always taking a risk, living out there,'" said Schiek, who's been in the canyon for 28 years. "I don't think that's fair. They're saying that was a 25-year rain, whatever that means. OK. But I've seen it rain like that here before, and nothing like that flood ever happened. They burned the mountain in June, and that's the difference. I'm sure the Forest Service people did what they thought was best, but that changed everything."

That fact, that life had changed in Bonito Canyon, became very clear on the evening of Aug. 25, when the canyon flooded again--to nearly the same level as before. The storm that caused the big flood in Catalina that night also hit Apache Peak, dropping 1.3 inches in the lower wash, and about a quarter-inch more up on Oracle Ridge. Another huge flood roared down the canyon. This one peaked about 18 inches below the first, but was still many times bigger than any the residents had experienced before August.

The Aug. 25 flood did less damage than the first, in part because the Aug. 14 storm had already swept much of the fire debris off the mountain, and the channel had been cleared. The dirt berms also deflected some of the flow. And, of course, there was very little left to sweep away. The second flood left a foot or so of coarse sand on top of the layer of ash-mud in the wash, and in Mattson's yard, it dug a new gully. It also took about a third of Huntington's ruined house and flooded Schiek and Wasley's workshop again. The Y camp lost steel culverts 4 feet wide and 30 feet long; they were eventually found miles down. The road to High Jinks returned to boulder-field status--as it has in every hard rain since--and at one of the properties partway up the hill, a well flooded that had been unaffected by the first rain.

The second flood jangled nerves up and down the wash. When Laura Prichard called that night to warn Mattson, Mattson and Lubers decided to move their truck to high ground before thinking about what to do next. It started to pour as they crossed the wash, and they spent the next two nights at a motel in Catalina.

AFTER THE DESTRUCTION OF Aug. 14 Mattson began contacting every agency and official she could think of.

The Forest Service directed her to National Resource Conservation Service. Ralph Ware of the NRCS came out, looked around and began putting together the people and resources to build rock gabians in an effort to protect the low-lying houses from debris. Pinal County ponied up 25 percent of the needed funds--the NRCS's Emergency Watershed Program supplies 75 percent of funding to protect threatened resources. State Rep. Ernest Bustamonte came out and toured the area, returning several times and promising to look for state mediation money. The emergency roadwork and the berming and dredging along the wash helped relieve residents' immediate concerns, but everyone in the canyon understood that the real problem was upstream, and the real issue not the last rain--but the next one.

The flood on the 25th showed that their anxieties were justified.

In the aftermath, Bonito Canyon residents started wondering: If the backfire had created the conditions that turned a 25-year-rain into a 100-year flood--and a recently released report by the USGS-NWS concludes that it did--then wasn't the Forest Service somehow responsible for everything that had happened?

Mattson was leaving messages for Robert LeFevre, the Forest Service hydrologist responsible for the service's Burned Area Emergency Response field review of the Aspen Fire aftermath, but he didn't call back. On Aug. 18, she sent a letter to Sen. John McCain asking for help. McCain's office forwarded her letter to Ron Senn, then the District Ranger for the Santa Catalina Ranger District of the Coronado National Forest, who wrote back on the 22nd to tell her that the BAER team had found that damage on Apache Peak was severe enough to warrant reseeding, which had already been done. He also stated that revegetation takes time, and that the Forest Service "anticipates the area will take three to five years to recover." The service was working on long-term rehabilitation plans for the forest, he said, but could do little more at the moment.

In mid-September, McCain's office received and forwarded another reply to Mattson's letter, this time from Acting Forest Supervisor Susan K. Kozacek. Kozacek said, again, that the Forest Service had reseeded the peak, and that the seed was germinating, but that no watershed treatment could eliminate flood flows after "rainfall events of this magnitude immediately following a fire." She also wrote that "it should be pointed out that of the work done on the Aspen Fire, 7,500 acres were treated on the north (Oracle) side of Mount Lemmon compared to about 2,500 on the south side."

This statement, along with Kozacek's concluding observation that "it is no surprise that Dr. Mattson had not seen anything like it in last 15 years" (since the rainstorm was a 25-year event), infuriated Mattson and her neighbors. In their view, the point was not the intensity of the rain, but that the lethal flood--and flows after all monsoon rains since--had been wildly out of proportion to the precipitation. And the remark about seeding made them wonder whether Kozacek even knew where Bonito Canyon was. It's miles of peaks and canyons away from Mount Lemmon, and every bit of its flow comes off Apache Peak, not Mount Lemmon.

(A comic sideshow to residents' dealings with McCain and the Forest Service was supplied by First District Rep. Richard Renzi. His Washington, D.C., office had failed to return calls, so at a town hall meeting he held in San Manuel on the 25th--just hours, as it happened, before the second big flood--Mary Ellen Kazda, a local leader in conservation issues, stood up and asked if he was aware that there had been a death in Bonito Canyon due to the Aspen Fire. He said he wasn't. Rep. Renzi then went on to reveal that he didn't know what federal department the Forest Service was in, and he talked about having been up at Summerhaven with President Bush--"even he looked down" and saw all the ash. He went on to plump for the perfectly irrelevant Healthy Forests Initiative--the Bonito Canyon watershed is grassland dotted with small oaks and brush--and denounced environmentalists who had kept "us" from making the forests safe. Kazda then asked if he would tour Bonito Canyon; Renzi said that he would, and advised her to call his office to arrange a day and time. The appointment was made, but Rep. Renzi didn't show. Subsequent calls to his office have not been returned. The Oracle, the paper Huntington had owned, printed a full transcript of his remarks at the meeting. Renzi also did not return a call from The Weekly. )

Adding to the frustrations of the residents was a growing bitterness about the media. Mattson started calling the Arizona Daily Star the day after the story on Huntington's death appeared, trying to get the circumstances clarified: The impression that he'd been out taking pictures when he was killed had stuck, and it kept getting in the way.

"I still hear it," Mattson said. "I tell somebody I live out here, and that my house is the next one down from Jim's, and I get, 'Oh, yeah, but he was out taking pictures or something, right?' Like he was reckless and that's why he died. It's really been a problem."

Although she's phoned and e-mailed the Star at least seven times, Mattson has been unable to get either a clarification or a follow-up.

Laura Prichard explains: "Oracle isn't interesting. We're on the wrong side of the mountain, so we don't exist."

Or, as Huntington's friend and ally Web Parton put it, "I think some people have pretty accurately concluded that the folks in Bonito are all by themselves out there."

The residents of the canyon inevitably compare their experience to that of the people in Summerhaven, who've gotten exhaustive media attention, donations, universal sympathy and help from government at all levels. No one up there, they point out, was even seriously injured, while a man died in Bonito Canyon. Other sore subjects are that most of the properties on Mount Lemmon are weekend cabins, not primary homes, and that homeowners' insurance covers fire, but not flood. People in the canyon have had to eat tens of thousands of dollars in losses, including a radical drop in the value of their houses and acreage; the only damages covered anywhere along the wash were those that resulted from Huntington's truck smashing into Mattson's house. She's repairing it, even though what she needs to do is to rebuild higher up. But she's not rich and the time to apply to FEMA is past.

"People say, 'You mean you're still living there?' Well, where else can I live? This is my house."

IS THE RESIDENTS' CONTENTION that the backfire on Apache Peak was the ultimate cause of the lethal flood reasonable? Is it true that, as Mattson believes, the flood wasn't an act of God, but an act of the Forest Service? And is the federal government somehow to blame for the catastrophe that killed Jim Huntington?

There are no simple answers.

Everyone agrees that the backburn created a significant risk of disastrous flooding below. Chris Smith of the USGS and Mike Schaffner of the National Weather Service, who started studying the flood the day after it happened, concluded that the burn increased runoff from the peak by at least 2.5 times, a figure they describe as conservative. This means that the return interval of a 100-year flood is 25 years until the peak recovers.

No one wants to think about what a 100-year rain would do now to Bonito Canyon.

Still, there's little dispute that the backburn was necessary, or, at least that it seemed necessary on June 24. (The Santa Catalina Ranger District could not confirm the date of the burn, which is taken from a newspaper report.) An arm of the Aspen Fire was headed north, and had begun wrapping around the peak's flanks, threatening the Y camp and the canyon houses. As it turned out, the wind shifted before the Aspen Fire met up with most of the backburn's edge, so perhaps, in hindsight, it didn't have to happen. But that wasn't knowable at the time.

It still adds to the pain. "It was when somebody told me that the fires hadn't met, that Jim was dead for nothing, that I really got going," said Mattson.

So then the question becomes: Could the backburn have been less destructive? Impossible to say. Residents were told that it would be a slow-moving controlled burn, and that's what it looked like for a while after the lower end of the line was fired. But when the upper end was lit, just below Oracle Ridge, it blew up. The upper fire sucked the lower fire toward it, according to the Prichards, who watched from the roof of their house less than two miles away. When the two fires met, a huge, roiling column of flame "like an atomic explosion" obscured the face of the peak. Damage to vegetation from the firestorm has been assessed as moderate to severe, damage to the soil as low to moderate. It was a hot, hot fire--a heat-deformed glass bottle and a half-vaporized aluminum can on the intensely charred south ridge testify to that.

But the fire crew that lit the fire, and the person who ordered it, are long gone, and, according to the Coronado National Forest's Santa Catalina Ranger District's Information Officer, Sarah Davis, there's no way now to ascertain whether the backfire behaved as expected. All that's clear is that the backfire seemed necessary, and that backfires often behave badly. In the words of writer and fire scientist Stephen Pyne, "Fire is not a precision tool."

One thing about the Apache Peak backburn that remains disturbing, though, is that no one told the residents of the canyon that they had just become sitting ducks. The Forest Service's BAER team surveyed the peak just days after the fire and created maps--dated June 29--showing the severity of damage, flood risk and proposed treatments. (The treatments for the Bonito Canyon watershed were reseeding, putting up a flash flood warning sign on the Mount Lemmon road and cutting a fence.) The team's hydrologists may have recognized the potential for catastrophic flooding in lower Bonito Canyon, but were probably unaware that there were people living there.

In any case, warning them was not their job.

At the same time, the people whose job it was to warn Pinal Country residents of flood danger may have known that people lived there, but they hadn't been told how dangerous lower Bonito Canyon, in particular, had become. The BAER maps were posted on the Internet in early July, and the team's findings were available to Pinal County--whose responsibility it is to warn residents--almost immediately, but Apache Peak is a tiny little corner of the map of the burned area. Another problem was that federal review and planning after the fire was focused almost solely on Pima County, and Pinal agencies had trouble getting hydrological engineering assessments for their side of the Catalinas. In short, there was no one to recognize the implications of the severity of damage, the shape of the terrain and the presence of people.

So general warnings were issued about the dangers of monsoon flooding, and at least one informational meeting was held in Oracle, but nobody told the residents of the lower canyon just how dangerous their wash had become. Whether it would have made a difference is unknowable. Whether they would have gotten flood insurance or started berming or moved out before the rains came or listened to their radios more closely--who knows? Still, had they been told of their danger, they would have had the chance.

ALL THAT'S BACKSTORY --what happens now? Later this month, Ralph Ware of the NRCS--a frank, conscientious man who's been in many ways the guy in the white hat for Bonito Canyon--is hosting a meeting where all possible players will try to figure that out. Representatives of all the concerned governments and agencies, scientists who've become involved and the residents are all invited. (Ware's office is also working with local conservation districts to identify other sparsely populated areas at high risk for fire-related flooding.)

"We must keep asking if there's anything more that can be done for the watershed as it is now and for the people who live in it. Would checkdams, say, or flood gauges help? Many people have been working on this, but there's a lot of information that hasn't come together. The best solutions will come from getting everyone in a room and letting them listen to one another about what is needed and what can be done."

Of course, what they'll be talking about, finally, is mediating the limitless violence of nature. And it's not clear the even the U.S. government can stop running water.

FROM THE BOTTOM of lower Bonito Canyon, you can't see Apache Peak at all. What you do see, more than two months after the big flood, is chaos. Driving in, you first see small signs like the raw-looking little channels along the road, and then, as you drop into the canyon, the evidence of the flood's terrible momentum is all around. Everywhere you look, something is broken, misplaced or newly exposed. It's obvious that something huge happened in Bonito Canyon, and the idea of being there when it happens again is physically sickening.

This is why the residents keep trying to get people to come and look: It's hard for someone who hasn't seen to understand their distress. Sometime after the first flood, Sandee Mattson saw a guy in a Forest Service uniform on the road. He was on his way up to his crew, which was clearing trails wrecked by last year's Bullock Fire. She asked him to come down and look at the canyon, and kept badgering him until he did, still protesting that he didn't know why she was wanted him to look--he was just a trail crew boss. When he got there, she showed him around and he said, "This is a disaster area."

She thanked him. Just having someone who worked for the service come and look and say that was a relief.

From the top of Apache Peak, you can't see into the lower canyon. You can see down into the mine at San Manuel, across to the Galiuros and south to Mexico. There's a beautiful view of the golden, rolling hills to the east and north, now a checkerboard of burns and backburns in various stages of recovery. You can see the line of the canyon, and all its fingers running up the slopes, and the big shadow of the mountain covering it.

On top, where a massive rock ridge provided shelter from the flames, penstemon, verbena and maidenhair fern flourish in the ash-fertilized pockets between the big rocks, and an untroubled sotol sits at the highest point. But nothing moves, unless it moves with the wind. No insects, no lizards, no birds at all. There's no shelter for 1,000 feet down, and nothing to eat.

Just below the top, the moonscape begins. It's all black, except for a tiny catclaw here and there, and, in one spot, a miniature yucca sprouting from the pile ash that was its former self. It's too soon to tell which of the black skeleton-oaks might sprout again from the base of their trunks, as many of last year's crop of burnt trees have done far below. But the trees that are now black holes in the ground--those that burned down into their roots--will not come back. The loose, treacherous rock is all black, too, and you have to test even boulders before you trust your weight to them. Everything is ready to slide.

Far below, on the gentler slopes near the bottom and toward the north, there's a flush of light green over the black, but the light has to be right for it to show. Up high, though, and all down along the peak's south ridge, everything is charred, and the rubble clinks underfoot.

As the residents of Bonito Canyon know, there's nothing to stop a raindrop on its way down the hill.

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