Arizona hikers clinging to trees rescued from flooded canyon

A helicopter rescued hikers clinging to tree branches and perched on boulders as fast-moving floodwaters tore through a normally quiet creek in Arizona, where unpredictable summer storms rapidly wash churning torrents into canyons and overwhelm those looking to take advantage of cooler weather.

Seventeen hikers got stranded Sunday in a scenic canyon on the outskirts of Tucson, just over a week after a flash flood killed 10 members of an extended family more than 140 miles to the north.

The final two hikers were lifted to safety Monday from Tanque Verde Falls at Redington Pass after they spent the night stuck on the side of a cliff in the rocky, narrow canyon, authorities said.

There was no immediate indication that any of the hikers were seriously injured.

Though “everyone is accounted for and everyone is alive,” the rescues are a reminder of the dangers of flash flooding during the monsoon, when bursts of heavy rain can overwhelm usually calm waterways, said Deputy Cody Gress, a Pima County sheriff’s spokesman.

When rains ease triple-digit summer temperatures, people often go hiking when the danger of flash flooding has skyrocketed, the agency said. On July 15, a large family celebrating a birthday at a swimming hole in central Arizona was swept away by a wall of water that cascaded down a canyon without warning after a storm.

On Sunday, a police helicopter lowered a rescuer to eight hikers, including a 4-year-old boy, fastening them to a hoist that hauled them one by one to waiting rescuers on the side of the mountain creek.

Four were plucked from the creek as they clung to tree branches with water up to their waists, while others scrambled to safety on rock ledges, said Shelley Littin, a Southern Arizona Rescue Association swift-water rescue technician who helped with the rescues.

“We’re lucky not to have lost anyone,” she said.

The creek normally has just a trickle of water, allowing people to play in shallow pools, but Littin said the water level jumped about tenfold in five minutes and was at least 6 to 8 feet deep.

Rescuers walked seven of the stranded hikers to safety by Sunday night.

“They were in a less dangerous spot. They weren’t right in the middle of the water,” said Gress, the deputy.

Rescuers dropped food, water and blankets to the two remaining hikers who were perched on a ledge before they could be saved shortly 7 a.m. Monday.

The hikers were in several groups and spread out in the canyon when the flash flood hit, Gress said.

The National Weather Service had issued a flash flood watch for a wide swath of southern Arizona on Sunday, and Tanque Verde Falls was within that area, said Gary Zell, a meteorologist in Tucson.

The Tucson area had extensive rainfall during the previous week and the possibility of heavy rain wasn’t a surprise, he said. People going into mountains or other flood-prone spots should monitor the area before heading off, Zell said.

“They’re not good places to be when there’s a risk of thunder, lightning and heavy rain,” he said.

The sheriff’s department said people often decide to go hiking once it stops raining, not realizing that the water they see in the creek is from much earlier rainfall, not the storm that just ended.

“What’s coming is a lot more fierce,” Gress said.

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