Historic monsoon sparks rise in swift-water rescues

Published: Aug. 25, 2021 at 12:52 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - With this record-breaking monsoon, we are seeing a high number of swift-water rescues. Pima County Sheriff Deputy Marissa Hernandez says these swift-water rescues aren’t just dangerous for those in need of help.

“When people pass those barricades or drive through the water, they’re putting themselves at risk and they’re putting our first responders at risk,” she said.

First responders are getting more of those calls this year. Swift-water rescues are at the highest number we’ve seen in at least five years. Here are the numbers from the Pima County Sheriff’s Department:

  • 2017: 34 rescues
  • 2018: 37 rescues
  • 2019: 37 rescues
  • 2020: 10 rescues
  • 2021: 69 rescues (as of Aug. 18)

From 2017 through 2019 rescuers responded to fewer than 40 rescues each year.

“Those three years really seem to be kind of average as far as the number of rescues were concerned,” said KOLD Chief Meteorologist Erin Christiansen. She went on to explain what was happening with our weather those years.

“As far as monsoons of 2017, ‘18, and ‘19 were concerned, ‘17 and ‘18 had above average rainfall.”

Monsoon 2020, however, was a very dry year.

“Second driest monsoon on record,” said Christiansen.

Not to mention, there was a pandemic that kept many people staying home. That year, PCSD responded to 10 swift-water rescues. However, for 2021, they’ve had 69 rescues so far. So, what’s behind the dramatic spike?

“Take the fact that we have double the wildfire coverage area from the last two years because we really didn’t have much rain to test the wildfire burn scars in 2020, double the amount of rain, and probably double the amount of visitors who are here from other parts of the country and it kind of stands to reason we would see double the number of people who are getting caught up in flash floods and needing to be rescued,” said Christiansen.

Also on the frontlines of these rescues: Northwest Fire, Tucson Fire, and Golder Ranch. Since July 1, 2021, they have responded to 98 swift water and stranded vehicle calls. That’s 276 hours of response time.

Northwest Fire Chief Josh Zent says the number of calls they’re responding to is taking a toll.

”They are running back-to-back calls,” he said. “So they have to keep ready, keep operationally prepared, keep the equipment ready so it’s a lot busier for them.”

Zent also emphasizes the impact of so many swift-water rescues.

”Those are high-resource demand and high-risk for our folks and very dangerous for the public,” he said.

While crews have seen a lot of swift water emergencies so far this year, monsoon isn’t over yet. It officially ends Sept. 30.

There is a so-called “Stupid Motorist Law” in Arizona. It basically means any driver who goes around barricades and needs to be rescued can be billed for the cost of their rescue.

PCSD says of the rescues so far this year, no one has been billed. They say if someone is in need of help, they do not want anything to discourage them from making that potentially life-saving call. To learn more about this law, click HERE.

Copyright 2021 KOLD News 13. All rights reserved.