A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

When Paradise Turns Deadly


The gentle creek that flows down Water Canyon turned deadly this week as it exploded into a flash flood killing 15 people, most of them children.

It was beyond horrible for a community that shuns publicity and is best known for its xenophobic, polygamous religion.

But in the coming decades, with extremes of weather in a changing climate, the people of Hildale, Utah, may be a lot better placed than the rest of us to cope with what’s coming down the pike . . .

water-canyon-091615About half an hour from where I live at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Water Canyon is one of the most beautiful hikes in Southern Utah.

The trail follows a bubbly creek, with birds and bees of all kinds buzzing around the flowers. When the canyon narrows some more, you scramble up some spectacular rock formations, and then continue up Canaan Mountain that overlooks Hildale on one side and Zion National Park on the other.

All in all, a beautiful hike – unless you were there the day before yesterday, when the beauty turned deadly and a flash flood came roaring down the canyon into the small town of Hildale, taking out the road where mothers were driving their kids home from the park. Fifteen people died as their two vans were hurled down the torrent. Some of the bodies were found five miles away. As assistant fire chief Kevin Barlow described it:

“It’s dry most any day of the year, but in this instance, there was a small flood starting in that channel They hesitated and watched the flood for a minute and were backing up when a huge 300- to 400-foot-wide flash flood came around and even behind them.”

Flash floods are part of life in the Southwest, but no one had ever seen anything like this. A woman whose house overlooks Short Creek called it “a roaring river, just a wall of mud and debris, ripping up trees.”

In nearby Zion National Park, yet more people lost their lives in the same storm. Zion is a vast, bowl-shaped canyon carved out by the Virgin River. As the river, normally a gentle creek, enters Zion, it funnels through The Narrows, a set of slot canyons that are a favorite with hikers and canyoneers. Rule One for going through a slot canyon when there’s rain in the vicinity is “DON’T!”

Rule One for going through a slot canyon when there’s rain in the vicinity is “DON’T!” And although park rangers warned canyoneers about possible flash floods, four were found dead on Monday evening, and more were still missing on Tuesday as swirling floods made it almost impossible to search for them.

The people of Hildale and its sister town Colorado City guard their privacy. Last time they were in the news was almost ten years ago when the head of the polygamous Mormon sect that most of them belong to – the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) – was arrested and convicted sexual assault of 12- and 15-year-old girls.


Back then, almost none of the residents would talk to members of the national media. But this week, it’s been very different. The townspeople know they need all the help they can get in putting their lives and homes back together.

From the highway, you don’t see much of Colorado City and Hildale – mostly just big barns, construction areas, and a few of the big houses of these polygamous families live. But when I first went hiking up Water Canyon I saw a different side of the community, and I realized why those early Mormon sects had settled there: Nestled up against the towering cliffs, it’s a paradise.

Unlike most other creeks in the region, Water Canyon doesn’t dry up in summer. So it was the perfect place for people, a hundred years ago, who were setting out to create a community that could survive the worldwide disasters they believed were coming.

The people of the FLDS sect were setting out to create a community that could survive the worldwide disasters they believed were coming.Behind these two small towns, lush farms produce food of every kind, and most of the prosperous, hard-working families have their own big orchards.

The flash flood that brought death and destruction to Southern Utah this week is being called the most deadly natural disaster in the history of the state. It’s a classic example of how the changing climate brings greater extremes of weather of every kind.

In the wake of the disaster, the people of this community have been learning the value of working with people from the outside world.

But whenever I go up Water Canyon, I’m struck by something different: For the people of Hildale and Colorado City, their lack of dependence on much of our modern and very fragile civilization means they’re likely to fare a lot better than most of the rest of us in the times that lie ahead.