After Swimming Hole Tragedy, a Reminder About Monsoon Safety

Sandy Shiloh | Tucson

Over the weekend, a flash flood roared through a popular swimming hole in the Payson area, sweeping away those relaxing there β€” and killing nine members of a Phoenix extended family, including several children. (Another family member remained missing as of Tuesday afternoon.)

It was an unthinkable tragedy β€”and also a reminder that Arizona's waterways and canyons can quickly turn deadly, especially during the state's unpredictable monsoon.

As The Arizona Republic reported, it wasn't raining at the Cold Springs swimming hole. The flood came from a thunderstorm that occurred miles away, upstream on Ellison Creek. The result was a 40-foot-wide, 6-foot-high "black wave" of water, mud and debris that overran the recreation site, officials said.

So, if flash floods can come without warning, how can you avoid them? Experts told The Republic that it's a good idea to get a topographical map of the area you plan to visit. You can use that to look at how the area's creeks and rivers are connected, giving you an idea of where to keep an eye out for storms that could trigger a flood where you are. If you're in a canyon or a wash, think about where the drainage begins. If it begins 30 miles away, you might not see the storm sending a flood your way. If the canyon is only a mile long, a flood will come only if the storm is right on top of you.

If you're hiking in a long canyon where you might not see the storm, keep track of exits β€” places where you can climb to safety at a moment's notice. Even knee-deep water can be fatal when it's moving fast and full of debris.

It's also a good idea to check with the National Weather Service, for a current forecast, and the U.S. Forest Service, for information on recent wildfires. A recently burned area can make a flash flood even more severe, and officials suspect that happened with the Cold Springs flood, which was near the scar of this year's Highline Fire.

One expert also recommended having someone in your party monitor the area from higher ground, to try and spot an approaching flood. In some cases, of course, the terrain may make this impossible.

If you are caught in a flash flood, you can't outrun it and shouldn't waste time trying. The only thing you can do, experts say, is get to higher ground β€” out of the creek bed or wash. Once you're there, stay there until the water recedes. If you're trapped there, try to find some shade and display a brightly colored piece of clothing so rescue helicopters can spot you.

Monsoon-related flash floods have killed many people in Arizona. Don't become one of them.

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