Ten Family Members Dead after Drowning Accident Caused by Arizona Flash Flood

What began as a family outing in the high country of central Arizona on the afternoon of July 15th became a family tragedy when a flash flood smashed into a well-known picnic and swimming area a few miles north of the town of Payson. By Sunday afternoon, 9 of the 14 family members of Maria Rayas, including Maria and her 3 children, were confirmed as dead and her husband was listed as missing. Ironically, the family outing was to be an early 26th birthday celebration for Maria, whose birthday would have been Sunday. Instead, family members spent their Sunday identifying their kinfolk as their bodies were recovered after the flood waters subsided.

The drownings of Maria and her family occurred in the Wagon Wheel area of the Tonto National Forest, a site that is very popular with Arizona residents wanting to escape the sometimes brutal summer heat of the Phoenix – Tucson area. Like many other flash flood drowning accidents, there are indications that this accident could have been avoided.

Potential Liability Issues

As mentioned in other blog posts on this web site, the common law principle of premises liability holds that the owner of a property has the duty to maintain that property in a manner that will eliminate (or at least reduce) the possibility that a visitor will suffer an injury. Since the Wagon Wheel area is located within the Tonto National Forest, it is under the direct control of the U. S. Forest Service. Since that agency assumes the role of “owner” or “manager” of national forest land, it could be seen as liable for any deaths or injuries in its area of responsibility.

Turning to specific factors that could be interpreted as negligence on the part of the Forest Service, we notice the following issues could be raised by a drowning accident lawyer.

Failure to anticipate flash flooding

Over the past decade there have been numerous “wildfires” in areas “upstream” from Wagon Wheel that produced large areas of deforestation and thus very little vegetation to slow the runoff of rain water. The existence and the location of these “burn scars” was well-known to the Forest Service personnel. A thundershower Saturday afternoon produced heavy rain in an area some 10 to 15 miles to the east of Wagon Wheel. This rainfall immediately flowed into the East Verde River, producing the 30-foot high wall of water, mud, and debris that smashed into the Wagon Wheel swimming and picnic area.

Failure to warn

Although the terrain surrounding Wagon Wheel is quite rugged, the area is well within the range of the National Weather Service’s Doppler weather radar stations in both Flagstaff and Phoenix. This advanced radar technology has the capability of providing reasonable estimations of the amount of rainfall over a given area. Since this radar data is freely available in near real-time to anyone with a home computer, it would be reasonable to assume that someone at the Forest Service would be monitoring the local weather conditions. Apparently, this was not the case that Saturday afternoon.

The National Weather Service had issued a Flash Flood Warning for the Payson – Tonto National Forest area an hour prior to the flood’s arrival at Wagon Wheel. This warning was automatically relayed to all cell phone users who had previously installed the National Weather Service Severe Weather Alert application as well as to radio transmitters that broadcast on the Weather Service’s dedicated warning frequency. Unfortunately, cell phone reception in the Tonto National Forest is unpredictable and the Flash Flood Warning broadcast would only have been heard by the Rayas party if they had a “weather radio” and that radio was turned on at the time the warning was being broadcast.

A review of television news footage shot shortly after the flash flood does not show the presence of any signs warning visitors of the possibility of flooding. While it is possible that warning signs in the area could have been destroyed by the flood waters, a careful review of existing “stock” images provided online by the Forest Service and the “street level” facility of Google Maps does not show the presence of such warning signs. According to witnesses in the immediate area, there were no warning or advisory signs posted in the Wagon Wheel / East Verde River recreation area that mentioned the possibility of flash flooding.

Nothing in the above discussion should be taken as an indictment of the Forest Service, nor should it be taken as a solicitation for a future civil action on the part of the victims’ surviving family members. However, it does bring to light several areas of concern that will undoubtedly be addressed in subsequent investigations.

Although the death of Maria Rayas, her children, and her other family members is indeed a tragedy, it is also a starting point for an examination of the adequacy of flash flood monitoring and warning policies in a popular weekend destination for Arizona residents. If it is possible to find hope in the face of tragedy, perhaps the lessons learned here will help to prevent a similar accident happening at some point in the future.