FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – A 12-year-old girl died Tuesday after being swept away by floodwaters after heavy thunderstorms hit a section of northern Arizona scarred by a wildfire last month, authorities said.
The floodwaters rushed through a pair of subdivisions north of Flagstaff, forcing dozens of residents to flee their homes. The water carried large boulders, ash and other debris through the communities, knocking down fences and creating a muddy mess.
Coconino County sheriff's officials said the girl — identified as Shaelyn Wilson — fell into a wash south of White Vulcan Mine, a pumice mine north of one of the subdivisions. Her younger sister notified other family members, who performed CPR until medics arrived.
Authorities said Shaelyn was later found near a highway and was covered in mud as she was pulled from the water. She was unconscious during resuscitation efforts and taken to Flagstaff Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead.
"Despite our best efforts, we were unsuccessful in saving the patient," said Summit Fire Department spokesman Charles Kwiatkowska.
Two wildfires over a single weekend in Flagstaff last month forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes. Firefighters worked painstakingly to ensure no homes were burned, and no major injuries were reported, said Coconino County Sheriff Bill Pribil.
"To lose a child at the end of this is devastating," he said.
Heavy rains was also sweeping through parts of southern and south-central Colorado, flooding streets and creating traffic problems. Southbound lanes of Interstate 25 in Colorado Springs were shut down Tuesday evening after a five-car collision that included a horse trailer.
The National Weather Service said more than 2 inches of rain fell Tuesday afternoon in areas of Flagstaff that were charred last month by a 15,000-acre wildfire. Authorities determined the wildfire was sparked by an abandoned campfire that wasn't properly extinguished.
Vegetation in the wildfire area is scarce, allowing water to flow quickly over the landscape.
The U.S. Forest Service is overseeing efforts to prevent flooding in the area with straw mulch. Residents have used sandbags, concrete barriers and straw barriers to help keep water from reaching their homes.
Bob and Teresa Linhart have used all three methods of flood and erosion control around their homes. But the floodwaters rose above the 3-foot barriers Tuesday and knocked down chain-link fences on their property. Teresa called Bob at work Thursday terrified but decided against leaving her home because she had so little time.
She later told her husband, "you won't have any trouble getting in the yard because there's no fences," he said.
"I'm anxious to get home and see how far down some of my property went," he said from the tailgate of his truck at a parking lot off the highway.
Neighbors have put together contact lists to check in with others in case of flooding and some bought weather radios. County emergency officials sent word to 900 residents Tuesday, urging them to seek higher ground. It wasn't immediately known how many residents evacuated, but the sheriff's office said a shelter was being set up at an elementary school.
Authorities said they would work Wednesday to assess the damage.
Authorities shut down a portion of U.S. 89 because of the floodwaters, and dozens of motorists waited alongside the road or in nearby parking lots for the water to recede.
Joan Piwetz had a truckload of furniture to unload when she arrived home. Before she was finished, she heard a loud roar from the rushing water.
She said she grabbed her purse and 4-year-old son, got in her truck and got out safely, crossing water 3 feet high as she drove away from the community. She honked at other motorists along the highway to warn them to turn back, she said.
"It was the scariest thing to see a black, raging river," she said.
Piwetz left behind the family's ducks and chickens, doubting they had much of a chance to survive. Standing next to her pickup truck streaked with mud, a bench still in the back, she said, "Thank good God for letting us escape."
She said she and her husband have lived north of Flagstaff for five years and just purchased flood insurance after the wildfire. Unfortunately, the policy doesn't take effect until next month.