A swift water rescue captured by television news crews Sunday is a reminder to Valley residents of the dangers that quickly occur when rains hit.
The ABC15 video shows two 19-year-olds lifted by a helicopter from a wash in Apache Junction Sunday.
Mesa Fire and Medical Department’s Mike Thomas said the Valley’s washes popular with ATV riders, photographers and adventurists can turn from dry to water-logged in a matter of seconds, and without warning.
“It can be totally dry. You can have rains up north, then you have no warning and you get hit with all that water. That’s the dangers of the washes,” said Thomas, a 14-year veteran of the Mesa department.
According to the National Weather Service, nearly half of all flood fatalities are vehicle related. Vehicles can become flooded in as little as one- or two-feet of water.
Thomas and his crew members of a certified tactical rescue team, ready to go out on swift water calls when they come from anywhere in the Valley. Members of Mesa’s Ladder 206 assisted Sunday when there were multiple calls in Apache Junction, Thomas said.
Some of the most dangerous situations are when drivers enter flooded washes, such as the Indian Bend Wash in Scottsdale or the Queen Creek and Sonoqui washes in the East Valley.
There are also roadways in Mesa that dip down and can be flooded, such as Elliot Road east of Ellsworth Road by Eastmark, Thomas said.
Many drivers think their four-wheel vehicles will be fine going through the flooded areas, but they don’t realize the force of the water, Thomas said.
But sometimes, rescues take place when hikers go into the mountains and the weather turns bad.
“Sometimes it involves hikers in the wilderness. It starts to rain and they may not be aware of how heavy it is raining up from them,” he said. “All that flood water comes in.”
Anyone caught in these situations should first call 9-1-1, Thomas said.
“We’re pretty well resourced to get agencies to you,” he said.
But residents should also heed warnings to avoid the situation: don’t try to cross flooded areas; go hiking in the morning, not in the afternoons when monsoon rains are most likely to arrive; and stay on common trails and pathways.
“Don’t go off into unchartered territory,” he said.
Tactical rescue teams are equipped with ropes, personal floatation devices, long-reach ladders and hardhats to keep them as safe as possible. They also undergo training quarterly to maintain their skills and certification.
Multiple crew members can assist in a rescue, from being in the water when necessary to being spotters on the lookout for any large debris – tree limbs or even vehicles – that may rush down the wash toward crew members or victims during flooding.
“We try to protect ourselves,” Thomas said.
When possible, Thomas said crews first try to reach victims by using Ladder 204’s 85-foot-reach aerial bucket, attached to the end of the ladder and lowered to the victim’s location, or by reaching a pole out to the victim to grab onto.
“That way we don’t have to put anybody in the water,” he said.
Next, the crews may throw out a rope, like a lifeguard throws a life preserver, to pull the victim to safety.
If neither of those options are possible, crews enter the water and go to the victim, making sure to protect each other in the process.
Typically, the last action is a helicopter rescue, like the one shown Sunday on the local news. That all depends on the weather – heavy rains, visibility, wind and lightning may put helicopter crews in danger.
But, air rescues are becoming more common.
“That used to be the last of the options because of the dangers of using aircraft,” Thomas said. “We’re starting to re-evaluate it,” as a way to keep fire fighters out of dangerous situations.
Besides the dangers, Arizona drivers need to be aware they could be liable for their own rescue. Arizona’s “stupid motorist law” means anyone who enters an area that’s listed as dangerous – and ultimately ends up needing help - could be left with the tab for that rescue.
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