Power of the Flood

A year after the deadly Bonito Canyon flood, residents are still recovering from the devastation

A man died in Bonito Canyon last August, but the monsoon season has been pretty quiet so far in the isolated arroyo nine miles north of Oracle. Except for the flood alarms.

The alarms are there because of the events of Aug. 14, 2003--a day on which 1.57 inches of rain fell in a half-hour on the northeast face of recently burnt Apache Peak, the canyon's sole watershed, precipitating a flood many times larger than any ever recorded in the canyon. Pelting down off the peak's steep, blackened face, the deluge became a surging 12-foot-deep amalgam of water, ash, dirt, scorched trees and rocks that churned through the lower canyon, sweeping away tens of thousands of dollars worth of property and killing 59-year-old Oracle publisher and environmental activist Jim Huntington, quite probably before he could get out of his creek-side house.

The power of the Aug. 14 flood is hard to comprehend. When the dozen or so canyon residents who'd been at work that day were finally allowed in after dark, they returned to a different place. The banks of the creek had been cut back 10 or 20 feet in places; huge trees were gone; and the old channel was half-filled with mud. Everywhere the lower-canyon homeowners looked, something was missing: trees, outbuildings, bridges, machinery and two large, steel trailers, plus hundreds of smaller items.

"Months later," says 16-year resident Sandee Mattson, "you'd forget and go to get something like a shovel or a can of paint, and it wouldn't be there. We all had that happen, over and over again. It takes a long time to get your mind (around) that kind of change."

Mattson estimates that she's spent at least $10,000 making only the most necessary repairs and adjustments. She mostly keeps her water turned off since one of her two wells still has to be dug out. She rents a storage space for her family heirlooms and has had to build new pens on higher ground for her two horses. Her actual loss, including lost property value, is much higher. (Ironically, the Pinal County assessor's office this year adopted a new way of figuring property values that multiplied her tax bill by a factor of 6--just as her property lost most of its resale value.) Several other homeowners in the lower creek are in the same boat; two private property owners higher up had roads completely washed out, and the nearby YMCA Triangle Y camp lost outbuildings and a bridge.

The loss that sent roughly two dozen residents of Bonito Canyon into deep shock, though, was that of their neighbor, Jim Huntington. After the flood, his small house--which sat in a low area between that of his brother, John Huntington, upstream, and Sandee Mattson's below--was jammed with mud and debris. One downstream corner had blown out, and the split was choked with debris, a mattress and other household objects. Jim Huntington, who usually came home about 3 p.m., was not there. (John Huntington declined to be interviewed for this article.)

The scene was frightening, but since his truck wasn't in the yard, everyone initially thought that he had gone off somewhere before the waters rose. Then neighbors found the truck, rammed into the wall of Mattson's house. They later determined that he had been home, possibly napping, when the weather service's severe storm warning had gone out by radio at 4:36 that afternoon. His nearly unrecognizable body was found by friend and neighbor Dean Prichard, his wife, Laura, and their handyman, Cliff Kelly, around midnight. It was wedged deep in a tangle of debris, far downstream.

The next day, residents, with the help of friends and county crews, started digging out while frantically trying to figure out how protect themselves, since the monsoon was still in full swing. They also quickly saw that the unprecedented magnitude of the flood must have something to do with the Apache Peak burnout set by Forest Service crews two months prior to contain the Aspen Fire on the north. Blackened debris from the fire was everywhere; past monsoon deluges had produced nothing close to this, and neither of the big, winter floods of October '83 and December '93 had risen above the creek bank. Now, a 25-year rain, as the weather service eventually described it, had produced a 100-year flood. What would a 100-year rain do? Their fears deepened when a less violent storm on Aug. 25 produced a second flood almost as big as the first.

It took months for the ad hoc Bonito Canyon Coalition (headed by Mattson) to get answers or help from any government entity except the cash-strapped but responsive Pinal County. They became particularly frustrated with the Forest Service, whose burnout of Apache Peak had turned into an inferno as it went up the slope: The peak was later identified as one of the two most intensely burned areas of the whole Aspen Fire. (The other was Carter Canyon, near Summerhaven.) An extremely hot fire can change soil so that it actually repels water, and the fire incinerates every plant and bit of mulch that could slow the momentum of water running downhill.

According to Tim Connor, range and watershed officer for the Forest Service's Santa Catalina Ranger District, the burnout of the accessible side of the peak was necessary. "We're not in the business of putting firefighters into dangerous terrain to protect property any more," he says, "and the soil-scorching blowout on the steep upper slopes was unavoidable. No one can change terrain and fuel load. The burnout was successful, and it was standard operating procedure."

While canyon residents are still tormented by the question of whether Huntington's death and at least some of their property damage could have been prevented had the Forest Service warned them of the radically increased flood danger in the canyon after the fire, a big interagency meeting with residents last December shifted the main discussion to what could be done to prevent another killer flood. (Buying out the most vulnerable residents is not a possibility, because they don't want to sell.)

Upstream, the Forest Service spent two weeks in April dropping 700 half-ton straw bales laced with seed over 1,000 acres of Apache Peak's northeast face. The straw acts as mulch that slows velocity of run-off and erosion.

Using funds provided by federal conservation and emergency management agencies, Pinal County's emergency services office built barriers along feeder streams to catch debris, constructed dike-like rock gabions along John Huntington's and Mattson's properties, and helped residents with channel and bank-clearing. The single most comforting measure for Mattson, though, was the May installation of two water-flow sensor assemblies in the stream bed near her house and Huntington's, sensors linked to modified burglar alarms inside both homes. She felt even better after it rained hard twice at the end of July, and her system worked both times. (Huntington's, which was less securely mounted than Mattson's, was dismantled by the flow from the first rain. But Mattson says she'll call him when hers goes off, and John Roter, flood control and traffic safety director for Pinal County, plans to go out and look at the sensors this week.)

The alarms go off when flow reaches a couple inches, and again when it gets up to 3 feet. This is enough warning to give Mattson and Huntington time to check the weather and decide whether they need to get out and up the hill.

"And now I can sleep," Mattson says.

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