Sen. Jeff Flake talks with Thomas Thurman of the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors during a tour the Goodwin Fire area on Aug. 10, 2017, near Mayer, Arizona. Mark Henle/

MAYER — Signs of life are starting to emerge from the charred hillsides in the aftermath of the Goodwin Fire, but concerns still abound here when it comes to recovery from Mother Nature’s one-two punch of fire and flood.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., toured the ravaged area on Thursday alongside representatives from the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors and Sheriff’s Office.

For 90 minutes, elected officials and reporters drove down dusty roads, gaining perspective about the fast-moving blaze, 1,250 firefighters’ efforts to save the town, and the runoff that has repeatedly emerged as the newest threat to residents.

RELATED: Mayer flash-flood victims fear future storms

The topic of prevention was raised frequently.

“What I want to know from the local officials here is, are they working well with the federal agencies?” Flake told The Arizona Republic. “Do we need to change the way these fires are addressed? What do we need to do for fuel reduction in the future?”

Thus far, the impression he’s received has been positive, Flake said.

Much work remains as storms were expected to return to the region this weekend, threatening drenching rains and the potential for more destructive flash flooding — a recurring issue in the town 20 miles southeast of Prescott. 

“We’ve still got a lot of monsoon to go,” Flake said. 

The tour came the week after he sent a letter to the U.S. Forest Service’s regional forester, Cal Joyner, calling for insight into the agency’s process and needs when it comes to funding and resource prioritization.

Fuel-reduction efforts have become a statewide priority, primarily in communities at the wildland-urban interface.

Flake stopped short of saying the work was lagging, although he did say efforts — which vary widely across the state — would be considered in an upcoming bill centered on forest health and fire mitigation.


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Cause still a mystery

The Goodwin Fire started north of Mayer on a Saturday afternoon in late June and charred 28,500 acres. After sending thousands of residents and campers fleeing, the fire was 100 percent contained July 13.

No serious injuries were reported, but the fire did damage some structures.

Even now, its cause remains somewhat of a mystery.

“We don’t know,” said Chief Deputy David Rhodes with the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office. “It was a possible lightning strike at this point, but we do not know for sure what happened.”

Days after crews quelled the flaming front that barreled toward town, concerns shifted to the heightened risk of flash flooding. Three times since the fire was contained, muck has rushed through the area in and around Mayer, forcing evacuations and damaging some homes and businesses.

The flood on July 17 stands out the most for Rhodes. That was the first post-fire flooding incident — the “big one,” as he calls it now. Low-lying areas, particularly a pair of mobile-home parks in Mayer, were inundated with sooty water, ash and charred debris, leaving residents to dig out their patios and driveways. 

Some residents at the time described it as “quicksand.” 

As recently as last week, water again rushed through a low-lying mobile home park in Mayer, where white sandbags continue to line the mud-mucked roadway.

Swift-water rescue teams now stage in the area, just in case. 

“It’s hard to continually have to come back to people and tell them, ‘Now, you need to evacuate because of a fire. Now, there’s a flood. Now, there’s this,’ ” Rhodes said Thursday. “They get worrisome.”


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Assessment of fire’s effects

The Prescott National Forest’s Burned Area Emergency Response team has made a sweeping assessment of the fire’s effects. That review wrapped up this week and identified areas of “severe burn and potential threats to human life and safety, property, and potential threats to important cultural and natural resources,” according to a Forest Service statement.

Crews in the coming weeks will use a helicopter to disperse more than 27,000 pounds of grass seed and 2,105 tons of straw over the most seriously burned stretches of land. Straw helps to keep the seed in place so it doesn’t get washed away by a downpour.

“Downstream residents should be aware that treatments will not eliminate the risk from flooding and debris flows,” said a forest statement announcing the seeding operations. 

As clouds built over the burn scar Thursday, heavy trucks headed toward a damaged culvert. Forest Service personnel patrolled along area access roads. A resident with a wheelbarrow hauled debris from the recent flooding across a dirt lot. 

Rhodes, with the Sheriff’s Office, paused before trying to summarize how the region has coped with the prolonged risk, challenging recovery and lessons learned.

“It’s been a work in progress,” he said.

Reporter Jason Pohl covers public safety for The Arizona Republic. Follow him on Twitter: @pohl_jason.


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