Finding relief from the summer heat in the temporary streams and pools that spring to life during monsoon season in Sabino Canyon, Bear Canyon and Tanque Verde Falls is a Tucson tradition.
Unfortunately, rescuing folks who find themselves stuck by rushing water on the wrong side of a sweeping stream or, worse, stranded on rocks as flash floods roar by is also part of Tucson’s summer routine.
It’s time to think about creating a measure like the so-called “stupid motorist law,” which requires drivers to cover the expense of their rescue when they go around barricades and drive into flooded areas.
Last weekend rescuers helped 35 hikers who were blocked by fast-moving water at a flooded bridge at Sabino Canyon. The weekend before, 17 people were rescued from extremely dangerous conditions at Tanque Verde Falls near Redington Pass, northeast of Tucson.
Both locations are known to flood, and quickly, even when the sky above is blue. Signage warns people about the potential for flash floods, which can happen without warning.
Rain far upstream must go somewhere, and it can tear through low-lying areas and canyons like Sabino, Bear and Tanque Verde in an instant.
Visitors are warned at the fee booths and Sabino visitors center, too, said Heidi Schewel, spokeswoman with the Coronado National Forest.
“People think if it’s not raining over my head I’m safe, and that’s far from the case.”
Don’t forget that on July 15, a flash flood near Payson killed 10 people. It came up on them in an instant, survivors said.
The National Weather Service issues flash-flood warnings, and they should be taken seriously. Know the forecast before you go — and don’t underestimate the power of water.
The dramatic rescue of 17 from Tanque Verde Falls on July 23 required a helicopter to save a man with a 4-year-old boy on his back and pluck an adult and a child from a rock outcropping in the middle of furiously rushing waters.
Flying a helicopter within a canyon is dangerous, and during that rescue main rotor blades were within 20 feet of the wall.
At Sabino Canyon last weekend, hikers gathered on the far side of the flooded bridge to wait.
Authorities decided to use a helicopter after one hiker grew so impatient that he swam across the flood waters — and almost didn’t make it.
It is this kind of risky and unnecessary decision that begs the question of cost. There is a difference between an accident and willful recklessness.
The Pima County Sheriff’s Department operates a Search and Rescue team, and people from other agencies — like Northwest Fire and the Department of Public Safety — and trained volunteers conduct rescues when needed.
These functions are included in agency budgets, but large-scale rescues with helicopter assistance are expensive nonetheless.
Common sense and preparation will help keep you safe, but a few people always have — and always will — think that basic rules don’t apply to them. Many more simply underestimate the speed and force of storms and flood waters.
Schewel said when she was a law enforcement officer in the park years ago, she would talk to people in low-lying areas about the flood dangers and say, “ ‘This isn’t a safe place to be at this time of year’ — some would leave, and some wouldn’t.
“You can educate,” she said. “But you can’t force.”