Crews have repaired a cable that lay dangerously exposed for a month and in the process reopened the road for possible use by emergency search and rescue crews.
The Forest Service granted access after local officials sounded the alarm on the potential catastrophic Internet outage near Fossil Creek. Fire officials have also been pushing for months to clear boulders preventing search and rescue crews from reaching the canyon bottom from Strawberry.
CenturyLink crews were on site moving boulders and repairing the Fossil Creek 708 Road last week, according to Pine-Strawberry Fire Chief Gary Morris.
At stake were several cable lines that lay exposed due to erosion on the unmaintained road.
On Monday, Morris surveyed the work. He said those cables are now back underground. However, CenturyLink did not replace the drainage pipe under the road, so the fix will likely prove temporary.
“The plus is vandals cannot damage the cable, but spring snowmelt runoff puts us back to the same problem,” he said.
CenturyLink did not respond to a request for comment.
Morris and others alerted the Forest Service and CenturyLink to the damage after a resident discovered it Sept. 19 while hiking the road.
The Forest Service closed the road from Strawberry down to Fossil Creek for lack of money to maintain it — then decommissioned and blocked a road in the bottom of the canyon leading to the spring source.
The 708 Road has deteriorated through the years and rescuers could no longer use it after a large boulder blocked passage. So, rescues that once took 90 minutes and involved a few volunteers now take up to seven hours and involve a dozen or more rescuers.
As part of its repair, CenturyLink cleared a large boulder that had blocked the road since the spring of 2017.
“It blocked emergency response to the waterfalls,” Morris said. “As a result, for the last two summers, a 20-minute response time to the waterfall trailhead jumped to more than two hours (six times longer) as Pine-Strawberry paramedics had to drive a loop around using Highway 260 to enter Fossil Creek from the Camp Verde side.”
While happy with the repairs, Morris wonders why it took a month. During the wait, Rim Country could easily have lost Internet service.
CenturyLink reportedly had to get permission from the Forest Service before accessing the site of the damage.
In an email to the Roundup, Forest Service officials said CenturyLink has a permit that grants it access to the right of way. They said after CenturyLink resolved the immediate threat to the cable they have indicated they will send a plan to the Forest Service for future projects to address those lines.
That could include addressing the drainage pipes under the road. The pipes had filled with rocks and debris, forcing the water up onto the road and washing it away.
Still, the larger issue is repairing the road as a whole.
The Forest Service says it can’t afford the repairs.
A 2011 geotechnical study reportedly cited unstable rock outcroppings above the roadbed and undercutting from erosion below. It would cost up to $6 million to remove the most dangerous outcrops and install retaining features to keep rock fall off the road.
The Tonto National Forest’s annual budget for road work averages between $1.5 million to $1.8 million. That is enough to maintain roughly 10 to 15 percent of the 4,000 miles of roads in the Tonto Forest.
Forest Service officials say engineers are developing a “suite of alternatives” for re-opening and maintaining the 708 Road for emergency access.
One alternative in the long-developing management plan for Fossil Creek proposes reopening the road for motorized use by the public.
The Forest Service will release that plan and draft environmental impact statement sometime this year.