The Slide Fire: 1 Year later - The Problem With Cell Phones

May 21, 2015

Our Slide Fire series continues today with a look at how cell phones worked - and DIDN'T work in Oak Creek Canyon during the fire. Thousands of visitors drive through the scenic switchbacks every day. But once they descend below the canyon's rim, cell phones generally become useless. In an emergency situation, there's no 911 access for several miles. As KJZZ's Laurel Morales reports, that was a big problem when the Slide Fire broke out.

On the afternoon of May 20th travelers driving through Oak Creek Canyon saw smoke, but they 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 says only 2 firefighters were on duty at the time. He says they geared up to investigate and called dispatch. "We use a radio system," Kazian says, "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. Nichole Garrison owns the Butterfly Garden Inn. "It was surreal," she says. "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. She says, "So much had to be done, but then it was 12 days of waiting and wondering and watching your life unfold on TV. 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."

Thanks to 2,100 firefighters and 10 million dollars 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.

John Herman, an Oak Creek Canyon resident, points to where the fire burned right up to his property line. "It came close!" Herman says. "When 20,000 acres burn because first responders couldn't respond quickly enough, that speaks volumes. Cell phone service is 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. John Herman says that if he or his wife were driving through Oak Creek and one of them had a heart attack or a flat tire or a million other things, they'd be in trouble.

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 3 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.

Sedona Fire Chief Kris Kazian says many people go to the canyon to unplug and get away from technology, but, "from a safety standpoint, it would certainly be better for people who travel that road to be able to have access to 911 because quick access makes the difference in our business."

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