PAYSON, Ariz. – The Tempe, Ariz., man injured during a rare bear attack in the Tonto National Forest is in critical condition today after the state’s third such incident in a month.
Peter Baca, 30, was airlifted Sunday morning to a Scottsdale hospital after the bear smashed his forehead and left large lacerations and bite wounds on the man’s legs and arm, officials said.
“He had a large spot on the right side of his head that was just a mess, but he was alert and talking, which was amazing,” said Carly Stoltenberg, who was camping nearby when the bear attack happened.
The attack at the Ponderosa Campground was the third incident in the area involving a bear within the past month, according to the Arizona Fish and Game Department, which explained that the bears are most likely drawn to garbage and the scent of food.
The first attack was May 31 when a bear entered a woman’s tent, also at Ponderosa Campground, and clawed her.
A bear also entered an unfinished cabin June 21 near Tonto Village, which is about 2.5 miles away from Ponderosa Campground, and bit a sleeping man on his leg.
Neither suffered life-threatening injuries, but Baca, the victim of Sunday’s attack, wasn’t nearly as fortunate. The man’s fiancée and a 1-year-old child were able to escape unharmed and warn other campers in the area.
“It was completely surreal. I was never scared. It just seemed like I was dreaming,” camper Stoltenberg said. “It looked like it was a baby bear, he was so skinny. I think he was starving.”
Stoltenberg said she heard screams and thought people were messing around at another campsite, but she quickly realized that something was wrong.
“We saw our friends’ tent start shaking and heard someone yell, ‘Bear, bear.’ We then saw the bear walking behind our tent and we quickly ran out and tried to scare it away,” Stoltenberg said.
Stoltenberg said her husband and another man grabbed their guns and tried luring the bear away from the campsite. They didn’t want to fire at the bear because the area was so crowded and they feared that shooting would only anger the bear.
The men led the bear away, but it started walking toward them and they fired several shots. But they don’t think any of the shots hit the bear.
Kim Bress, who was camping with the Stoltenbergs, told ABC 15 that she woke up to the bear ripping through her tent.
“I didn’t hear him, I didn’t hear him at all, but I remember the rip definitely,” Bress said. “I grabbed my son and my husband stood up yelling at the bear and it was like the bear just kind of looked at us, stood up, then others managed to chase him away.”
After being chased away, the bear walked to the campground where it attacked the Tempe man, which was about 50 feet away.
Baca’s life was possibly saved by an off-duty EMT who just happened to be camping nearby. The EMT had a bag full of medical supplies and was able to wrap Baca’s wounds and give him an IV.
“There was blood everywhere and the campsite was a mess, but that man saved his [Baca's] life. I definitely don’t think he would still be alive if he wasn’t there,” Stoltenberg said.
Tim Holt of the Arizona Game and Fish Department said bear attacks in Arizona are rare and usually caused by extreme environmental conditions.
“There have only been 10 bear attacks in Arizona since 1990,” Holt said. “The last three attacks have come in the last month, so they are extremely rare. I believe the number of attacks is primarily based on harsh drought conditions which have forced the bears into areas with humans because their natural food sources are gone.”
Although two bears were tracked and killed by rangers today, state officials are still unsure whether either of the bears was responsible for Sunday’s incident.
“We won’t know if these were the same bears until lab results come back,” Holt said. “At this time, we are not willing to speculate on that.”