Monsoon Storms Could Cause Flooding on Mount Graham

Stan Lowery | Mount Graham

Officials are warning that last year's wildfire on Mount Graham could cause monsoon flooding on the Southeastern Arizona peak.

The lightning-caused Frye Fire burned 48,000 acres in the Pinaleño Mountains last year. Now, officials from the Coronado National Forest told the Associated Press, runoff in areas where the vegetation was burned could lead to flooding on State Route 366 (the Swift Trail), the only highway up the mountain.

Emergency road closures are possible if monsoon storms lead to flooding, forest officials told the AP. Clearing the road could take hours, and drivers should be prepared for temporary delays.

The wildfire also decimated the range's population of Mount Graham red squirrels, which exist nowhere else in the wild. A census late last year estimated there were only 35 squirrels left — down from 250 the previous year.

If you're looking for a scenic drive in the Pinaleños that's more rugged but was less affected by the Frye Fire, check out Tripp Canyon Road, which climbs the range's western flank. A high-clearance vehicle is required, and you'll need four-wheel-drive to make it all the way to the top.

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Officials Seek Spur Cross Ranch Toad Thieves

Sonoran Desert toad | Bighouse2015 (via Creative Commons)

Three people were photographed taking Sonoran Desert toads from a Phoenix-area preserve last month, and officials are asking the public for help identifying the thieves.

As azfamily.com reported, the incident occurred July 19 at Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area in Cave Creek, northeast of Phoenix. A trail camera captured the thieves, two men and a woman, putting the toads in plastic bags about two hours after the conservation area had closed for the night.

The toads are not a protected species, which means they can be collected from the wild by anyone with a fishing license, according to the Arizona Game and Fish Department. However, because the toads were in a conservation area administered by Maricopa County, the thieves violated a county ordinance by removing them without permission, officials told azfamily.com.

It's not clear why the toads were taken, but Sonoran Desert toads, which are among the largest toads in North America, secrete toxins that have hallucinogenic properties. A Banner Health doctor told azfamily.com that the amphibians are often victims of "toad licking," which can be extremely dangerous.

Visit Spur Cross Ranch Recreation Area's Facebook page to see the videos of the toad thieves (be advised that the videos contain profane language). If you recognize anyone in the videos, call the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office at 602-876-1000.

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Phoenix Suburbs Get High Marks for First-Time Homebuying

Photographers know Gilbert for the waterfowl at its riparian areas, but first-time homebuyers have reasons to love it, too. | Yasmina Parker

Several Phoenix suburbs are among the nation's best cities for first-time homebuyers, according to a new ranking.

The ranking by WalletHub, a personal finance website, placed the Southeast Valley town of Gilbert 10th in the nation for those buying their first home. Its neighbor to the west, Chandler, ranked 11th, while Peoria, in the Northwest Valley, was 13th.

Also making the list's top 30 were Scottsdale, at 22nd, and Surprise, at 30th. Phoenix itself was 45th on the list.

The ranking scored each city by affordability, real-estate market and quality of life. In the affordability category, Gilbert ranked fourth nationally, while Surprise was seventh. Chandler ranked 10th for affordability, while Peoria's real-estate market ranked 10th.

WalletHub said the study compared 300 cities of varying sizes across the United States. Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, took the top spot for first-time homebuying, while Berkeley, California, came in last.

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Grand Canyon Seeks Input on South Rim Lodging Project

Courtesy of Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park is planning to demolish and rebuild an aging motel complex at the South Rim, and members of the public are being invited to weigh in.

The National Park Service is forming a plan for Maswik South, a set of six prefabricated motel-style buildings in Grand Canyon Village. In a news release, park officials said the buildings, which were constructed in 1971, have exceeded their "expected useful life" of 40 years, and that surrounding areas are in poor condition and out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, among other issues.

The Park Service says it wants to demolish the buildings and construct up to five new structures that would provide 120 guest rooms, up from the 90 currently provided at Maswik South. Some of the rooms would include kitchenettes to better serve families, the Park Service says. A new road would also be built to reduce traffic congestion in the area.

Through Friday, July 27, the public can comment on the proposed Maswik South rebuild. To comment, you can visit the project's website or write to Superintendent, Grand Canyon National Park, Attn: Maswik South EA, PO Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023. After the public comment period is over, the Park Service will analyze feedback and begin an environmental assessment of the project.

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Hiker Rescued From Flagstaff Area's Lava River Cave

Kevin Wemlinger | Lava River Cave

An injured hiker had to be rescued last week from one of Northern Arizona's strangest geological features.

As The Arizona Republic reported, the Coconino County Sheriff's Office and other organizations responded to the Lava River Cave, northwest of Flagstaff, around 2 p.m. July 9. Near the end of the 1-mile-long cave, they found a 44-year-old hiker who had injured his ankle.

Rocky and uneven terrain complicated the rescue of the man, The Republic reported, as did the fact that most of the cave is completely dark. Ultimately, a team of more than 20 rescuers got the man out of the cave around 6 p.m.

As we told our readers in a recent issue of Arizona Highways, the Lava River Cave is thought to have formed in a matter of hours about 700,000 years ago, when lava erupted from a nearby volcanic vent. The temperature in the cave remains in the 30s and 40s year-round, making it a welcome refuge from Arizona's summer heat.

Visitors to the cave should prepare for rocky terrain and total darkness. Take two or three light sources, such as headlamps and flashlights, with you, and wear sturdy shoes and warm clothes. If you plan to go to where the cave dead-ends, you'll have to crouch or even crawl in some spots. To learn more, visit this Coconino National Forest website.

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Do You Know What to Do During a Dust Storm?

A massive dust storm rolls into the Phoenix area in 2011. | Daniel Bryant

Massive dust storms, or haboobs, are a regular occurrence in Phoenix and other parts of Central Arizona during the summer monsoon. The Valley of the Sun experienced a good one last week, when a mile-high wall of dust rolled through town.

But do you know what to do if you're on the road and a dust storm hits? Here are a few tips from the Arizona Department of Transportation, which promotes dust storm safety via its "Pull Aside, Stay Alive" campaign.

  • Avoid driving into or through a dust storm.
  • If you encounter a dust storm, immediately check traffic around your vehicle (front, back and to the side) and begin slowing down.
  • Do not wait until poor visibility makes it difficult to safely pull off the roadway — do it as soon as possible. Completely exit the highway if you can.
  • Do not stop in a travel lane or in the emergency lane. Look for a safe place to pull completely off the paved portion of the roadway.
  • Turn off all vehicle lights, including your emergency flashers.
  • Set your emergency brake and take your foot off the brake.
  • Stay in the vehicle with your seatbelts buckled and wait for the storm to pass.
  • Drivers of high-profile vehicles should be especially aware of changing weather conditions and travel at reduced speeds.

Dust storms can be scary, but they usually pass fairly quickly and you can be on your way again.

For more information, visit ADOT's Pull Aside, Stay Alive page.

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Look Out for Wildlife Along Roads, ADOT warns

Jesse Tara Deacon | Kaibab National Forest

From our friends at the Arizona Department of Transportation:

It’s a traffic call heard too often this time of year inside the control room at the Arizona Department of Transportation’s Traffic Operations Center: “Car versus deer.”

From sunset to sunup, it’s not uncommon for a dozen vehicle strikes with deer, as well as antelope, elk, bear and other animals, to occur during a single evening as wildlife cross rural roadways. In fact, since 2012, more collisions with animals – wildlife, livestock and family pets – happen in June than nearly every other month – October sees the most. Annually, more than 80 percent of animal-related crashes are with wildlife and 86 percent of crashes involving animals occur in rural areas.

According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the higher-than-average number of wildlife-related crashes in June is likely related to the beginning of monsoon season, which translates into a “green up” of plants and provides more available water, allowing wildlife to travel greater distances and forage. It also coincides with more motorists traveling to Arizona’s high country, meaning more vehicles on roadways.

In some of the most heavily-traveled migratory corridors, ADOT has implemented creative solutions that promote safe travel, while protecting wildlife and connecting ecosystems.  These projects include wildlife underpasses and elk crossings along State Route 260 east of Payson, desert bighorn sheep overpasses near Hoover Dam on US 93 and two wildlife crossing structures on State Route 77 near Tucson.

Partnering with AZGFD, these efforts have increased vehicle-travel safety, while preserving and protecting wildlife. For example, a fencing project linking three existing crossing structures on SR 260 reduced elk-vehicle collisions by 98 percent over a six-year span.

When traveling in rural areas, drivers are encouraged to pay heed to signs indicating areas where wildlife is prone to cross roadways. Obeying the speed limit and paying attention to the shoulders of roadways will also reduce the chance of crashing into an animal. AZGFD advises:

  • Deer are most active in early mornings and evenings.
  • If you see one animal there are probably more, so slow down.
  • Typically, you should not swerve to avoid hitting the animal. Stay in your lane and firmly brake.
  • However, if it is a very large animal and there is no oncoming traffic and the shoulder is safe on either side of the road, it may be safer to swerve rather than risk the impact from a large animal, like a cow, horse or adult bull elk.

Following crashes with wildlife (81.7 percent), livestock is the next most common at 13.6 percent. Family pets in urban areas make up 1.9 percent of crashes involving animals.

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Litter Can Hinder Freeway Drainage Systems During Monsoon, ADOT Says

Joseph Kolasinski | Phoenix

From our friends at the Arizona Department of Transportation:

As it prepares for monsoon storms, the Arizona Department of Transportation is asking motorists and their passengers not to toss litter along highways. Why? Because the trash can block drainage grates or wind up in the nearly 60 pump stations that ADOT operates along Phoenix-area freeways.

Pump stations are designed to remove large volumes of water from freeways during storms, with individual pumps able to lift more than 12,000 gallons per minute. They are part of a vast and largely unseen drainage system that can keep freeways open during storms that overwhelm local streets nearby.

Pump stations typically have three to five pumps, driven by powerful engines, to lift storm water from inside the facilities and send it into nearby drainage channels or retention basins.

Motorists can help keep ADOT’s drainage systems operating at full capacity by helping to reduce litter and other debris that can obstruct drainage grates and catch basins that collect runoff, leading to standing water along a freeway.

Another way you can help: Report those you see littering on highways to the ADOT Litter Hotline. All that’s required is providing the vehicle’s license plate number and incident details by calling 1.877.3LITTER or visiting kazb.org. The owner will get a letter noting that someone was reported tossing trash from the vehicle, along with a free litter bag.

ADOT works to clear litter and other debris from pump stations and freeway drainage systems all year long. Piles of litter often have to be collected by hand and hauled out of pump station storage wells. Crews or contractors also use specialized vehicles to vacuum drainage pipes that lead to pump stations.

ADOT technicians also work year round to maintain pump stations and their engines, since storms and runoff are not limited to the summer months.

As monsoon season approaches, ADOT keeps an eye on weather forecasts to prepare for challenges associated with runoff. Localized storms that drop more than 2 inches of rain in an hour can tax any drainage system.

When litter and trash are clogging the system, and water starts to build in travel lanes, ADOT maintenance crews are called away from other duties to deal with blockages. That’s another reason to think before you toss that cup or can out a car window.

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Flagstaff Museum Receives National Honor for Hispanic Exhibit

Courtesy of Pioneer Museum (via Facebook)

The Arizona Historical Society's Pioneer Museum in Flagstaff has been honored by a national organization for an exhibit that explores the contributions Hispanic people have made to Northern Arizona's history.

The American Association for State and Local History awarded the AHS an Award of Merit in its annual Leadership in History Awards, the Arizona organization announced in a news release last week. The award was tied to "Todos Unidos: The Hispanic Experience in Flagstaff," a temporary exhibit at the Pioneer Museum.

The Historical Society says the exhibit "recognizes the countless contributions people of Mexican, Spanish and Basque descent have made to Northern Arizona through their labor, their traditions and their community service."

The group will receive the award at the national organization's annual meeting in Kansas City, Missouri, in September.

The Arizona Historical Society was founded by the Territorial Legislature in 1864, making it Arizona's oldest cultural organization. It operates museums and research facilities in Flagstaff, Tempe, Tucson and Yuma.

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Don't Spark a Fire: Check Chains, and Don't Toss Cigarettes

A motorcycle fire caused this brush fire, along Interstate 40 near Seligman, in late April. | Courtesy of Arizona Department of Transportation

From our friends at the Arizona Department of Transportation:

With summer temperatures at hand and the landscape extremely dry across Arizona, dragging chains, tossing cigarette butts or even having underinflated tires can start fires along state highways.

To get ready for fire season, Arizona Department of Transportation crews mow vegetation along highway shoulders in the winter and spring. They remove brush, thin trees and spray fire retardant within the ADOT right-of-way to prevent fires and slow the spread of those that occur.

But motorists have an important role as well, including not tossing burning cigarettes that can tumble or be blown into grass and brush. Here are other ways motorists can help cut down on sparks that lead to fires:

  • Dragging chains during towing can cause sparks. Check and secure tow chains, and never substitute parts when towing.
  • Make sure nothing is hanging beneath your vehicle and dragging on the pavement.
  • Check tire pressure before you travel. Exposed wheel rims can cause sparks.
  • Don’t park in tall grass, as the heat from parts under your vehicle can start a fire.

Besides the obvious danger to lives, property and the landscape, fires can snarl traffic as firefighters work along the highway and also can lead to lengthy closures. On April 25, for example, a rider whose motorcycle caught fire pulled into brush along eastbound Interstate 40 between US 93 and Seligman, igniting a fire that temporarily closed the freeway while firefighters managed to limit it to 6 acres.

“Each of us can do some simple things to cut down on the risk of fires along state highways, starting with checking tire pressure and making sure vehicles and trailers aren’t dragging something that can produce sparks,” said Dallas Hammit, ADOT’s state engineer and deputy director for transportation. “On the road, please use common sense. One burning cigarette flying out a car window can start a wildfire.”

According to the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management, dragging chains is one of the main causes of fires along highways including Interstate 17 heading into and out of the Phoenix area. On May 9, for example, dragging chains caused five brush fires along 8 miles of US 191 south of Safford. Fast action by firefighters prevented the fires from spreading beyond a tenth of an acre each.

“We continue to get multiple fire starts along Arizona's highways due to unsecured chains,” said Tiffany Davila, public affairs officer for the Department of Forestry and Fire Management. “The drought conditions and dry fuels equate to very high fire danger across the state. One spark is really all it can take to start a fast-moving wildfire.”

ADOT participates in the “One Less Spark One Less Wildfire” campaign the U.S. Forest Service and other land management agencies launched to focus on the role drivers and homeowners play in preventing wildfires.

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