Flash Floods & SARs

The last couple of days have been pretty hectic around the Gila and we may have more excitement tonight. As I write this, I try to remember that many parts of New Mexico are having issues with big rains and flash floods.

Both last night and the night before there have been lots of rain in the upcountry, resulting in flash flooding down at our level. Yesterday at about 10:45 a.m. I was in the visitor center when someone called my attention to a huge raft of logs jamming the entire Middle Fork of the Gila River just outside. We had a lot of people around the VC because we had two Search and Rescue operations going on, too. (More about that later.)

Debris Carpet Middle Fork Gila River

I immediately got on the radio to our contact station (where people go to start their trek to the cliff dwellings). Our supervisor and his wife, Marie, a park superintendent, were there and were pretty incredulous. They had just hiked along the Middle Fork and could not believe that anything this dramatic could have happened in the few minutes since they had arrived along the West Fork of the river. It was a few very tense minutes until we all realized that only the Middle Fork had flashed.

Anita and Dave, who have worked and volunteered here a long time quickly called key residents downstream and warned them of the impending doom. A SAR helicopter pilot reported that all the rubble had blocked off the opening to the Gila Hot Springs area and when the logjam broke everything downstream would be washed away. By everything, of course I mean the residents, too. To add to the tension of the day, a few hours later we learned that 5 people had launched on the Middle Fork with inflatable rafts, kayaks, etc. on a 3 day trip! We truly did not ever expect to see them alive again. The mountain of swift moving water and debris would certainly crush them.

We were lucky yesterday because we had a big SAR team from Silver City here. They found 2 women backpacking and brought them out. The amazing thing was that they were not even looking for them! They were in search of a couple and their almost 3-year old boy who were several days overdue from a week-long trek into the wilderness. He was reportedly an Oxford professor and we mused for days about why such an intelligent man would have left the rag top OFF of his vehicle, parked at one of the trailheads! They were found on a bluff and helicoptered out.

She and I cried together as she told me that they never expected to get out alive. They had camped as high up as possible, but the raging flood washed away their tent and all possessions. She told me that they had just managed to scramble up a very difficult bluff to reach high ground, but fully expected to be swept away, too. How they escaped carrying their little boy and climbing, too, is amazing. Mom and son are shown with the team below. Dad was being debriefed.


The destruction to the floodplain is amazing. I will try to put some of the best photos below. Another SAR volunteer and I provided all the photos and video to the press, but they still do not do justice to the sound of the raging waters. Other frantic activity centered on rescuing the forest service livestock (yes, including the two I had fed a couple of weeks ago). They were trapped in their corrals at the barn, thoroughly panicked and soon to drown. They ran for high ground as soon as the gates could be forced open against the raging flood waters and debris and are safely up in their pasture above our residence area.

Later in the day, the SAR team was going a little stir-crazy with nothing to do. So instead of waiting for endloaders to move the debris from our only road out they pitched in and moved it themselves. They had to use 4WD trucks and other devices to move some of the huge trees, but they got ‘er done! (and went home to their families!)

s-1f-Bridge After Main Surge s-1g-Barn Parking Lot s-1i-Logjam s-1t s-1z1

Last night big storms rolled in during the night and this morning I woke up to the sound of trees shattering along the river banks and being swept away. So, another big flash flood happened this morning!! We were already closed for the day due to some minor road damage, but today’s flash flood closed us for another day (tomorrow – Monday) and separated our group. Those who lived at the Gila RV park could not safely cross to the monument. They monitored the rise and fall of the flooding from their side of the devastation, then were released to go enjoy the day at their rigs. As soon as a helicopter could get in the air up here they found the 5 kayakers alive!

s-1a-Mid Fork fm Parking s-1b s-1c s-1f-Helo 2 s-1g-Mike Demudding car s-1h-Barn Bird s-1i-Barn Mulie s-1j-Jeff-Victoria s-1m-Victoria-Jeff s-1o-Water Over Road s-1p-Barn

Interestingly, another storm is predicted for tonight, but now it seems like “just another day in the Gila!” As I hiked around tonight at sunset, I was thinking of John and Delona who were able to get out of here early this morning. I’ll see them again at Big Bend in January, but I know they will be reading this. I love you guys, sure missed you on tonight’s walk, wish you safe travels and Godspeed back to Big Bend so we can have more fun together.

s-4a-Receding Waters s-4b-Faraway Rainbow s-4c-Sunsets-4e-Waterfall Gones-4g-More on the Ways-4h-Pigeon Taking RefugeSo good night from me and the pigeon taking refuge at the VC tonight! Poor little thing is far, far away from where he is supposed to live and is now considered an “invasive species”.

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One Response to Flash Floods & SARs

  1. Elizabeth Holman says:

    Oh, Amy, your blog is truly amazing! I so hope you and everyone else is all right. Your experience is very much like the devastation in Colorado. Please keep us posted be email when you have time. You and the others there are doing a wonderful job–proud of you! Love, Mom


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