Oak Creek Canyon Visitors Can Soon Call For Help

May 20, 2015
Laurel Morales
Much of Oak Creek Canyon remains without sign of fire. Most of the west side of the canyon has burned in three separate fires including May's Slide Fire. Chaparral in the canyon tends to grow back quickly.

Thousands of visitors drive the scenic switchbacks through Oak Creek Canyon every day. Once travelers descend below the canyon’s rim, cellphones become useless. There’s no signal.

If someone has an accident or spots a wildfire, there’s no 911 access for several miles. That’s exactly what happened one year ago on May 20.

On the afternoon of May 20, 2014, travelers driving through Oak Creek Canyon saw smoke, but couldn’t get through to 911. So they drove the windy road for 10 minutes before they came to a fire station and reported the fire.

Sedona Fire Chief Kris Kazian said only two firefighters were on duty at the time. He said they geared up to investigate and called dispatch.

“We use a radio system,” Kazian said. “So we talk to dispatch directly through our radio channel. And so they called dispatch and said it looks like we have smoke in the canyon. Minutes are crucial. Seconds are crucial.”

Minutes later they confirmed it was indeed a fire, and strong winds pushed it quickly toward homes and businesses.

“It was surreal,” said Nichole Garrison, owner of the Butterfly Garden Inn. “It felt like a movie. It felt like one of those things you see in the distance or on TV but will never happen to you.”

Garrison and her husband evacuated guests, employees, her family, secured their cabins and headed north to Flagstaff.

“So much had to be done but then it was 12 days of waiting and wondering and watching your life unfold on TV,” Garrison said. “It was a very scary, bizarre experience. We just sat very hopeful. But there were many days when we thought our house would not be here when we got back.”

Laurel Morales
John David Herman shows how close the fire came to his vacation home in Oak Creek Canyon.

Thanks to 2,100 firefighters and $10 million spent fighting the fire, Garrison’s house, business and all other structures in the canyon were spared from what became known as the Slide Fire.

“It came close,” said John David Herman, an Oak Creek Canyon resident. “When 20,000 acres burns because first responders couldn’t respond quickly enough, that speaks volumes! Cell phone service is the key to living in modern society.”

While cell providers are erecting new towers everyday there are still many dead zones, especially in the western United States.

“I’m driving or my wife is driving one of us has a heart attack and so there are a million things that could go wrong,” Herman said. “Flat tire! I’ve got a AAA gold card. It’s useless for 12 miles.”

So Herman rallied the Sedona mayor, Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick and several others to demand cell towers in the canyon. And it worked. Verizon has plans to install three new towers in Oak Creek Canyon. At least one will be 150 feet tall and disguised as a pine tree. AT&T representatives say they’re interested in attaching antennas to them. And CenturyLink plans to install the fiber optic cables.

Kazian said many people go to the canyon to unplug and get away from technology.

“But from a safety standpoint it would certainly be better for the people who travel that road to be able to have access to 911, because quick access makes the difference in our business,” Kazian said.

A Verizon contractor said there’s no timeline for installation. The company needs county approval first. But Herman said he expects the towers in place this time next year.