The inevitable next time: Flagstaff residents grapple with the new reality of wildfire and flood
Climate change and extreme drought are causing fires to burn bigger, hotter and spread faster than ever before, producing new dangers and upending life for thousands. And now the burn scars left behind are causing flooding in neighborhoods that previously weren’t flood prone.
All this is taking a huge toll on some Flagstaff residents who live under the constant strain of threats brought on by monsoon storms, and whose neighborhoods, in some cases, are nearly unlivable.
On a mid-August afternoon, Coconino County Emergency Manager Wes Dison sits behind the wheel of a white SUV, looking nervously toward the dark menacing clouds blanketing the San Francisco Peaks.
“Yeah, copy that. This is a really bad storm. We’re looking at it and it’s gonna get worse,” he says into a walkie talkie.
“Just advised, we’ve had approximately a half inch of rain in the last 15 minutes,” replies the voice on the other end.
Radio chatter starts to ramp up and emergency alerts come through on cellphones as the storm drops heavy rain on the burn scar from June’s Pipeline Fire.
“This could be one of the worst ones,” says Dison. “So, I’ve been in here when these storms hit. We’ll have about 15 minutes, 20 minutes before it is underwater out here.”
The rain intensifies, quarter-inch hail pelts the car and thunder cracks seemingly inches away. Dison turns the car into one of the many neighborhoods that’ve been hard-hit by flooding. A torrent of murky-brown water has overwhelmed a culvert, which is clogged by a massive jumble of logs and sticks. A newly formed river has erupted onto the road making it impassable.
“It’s torn out the whole infrastructure. We need to get out—we need to get out ‘cause if that breaks loose we’re going to have problems,” Dison says as he looks around for an alternate route around the deluge.
This is a bad storm, but not the worst to hit the area in a summer full of unprecedented wildfire and flooding. Local emergency officials have scrambled to ease the impacts on residents, but long-term solutions won’t come immediately.
“It is a disastrous situation. It is horrendous out there. This is devastating for people’s lives,” says Lucinda Andreani who leads Coconino County’s flood control district.
She and other officials are asking Congress for nearly $150 million in emergency funds to try to get a handle on what’s become a near-daily routine of monsoon rain on the San Francisco Peaks followed by catastrophic flooding in neighborhoods below.
“We’re working diligently with our congressional delegation to bring in the funding, to get the long-term mitigation in place, but it’s going to take time,” she says.
But time isn’t a luxury that everyone has, especially in the flood zone where Chase Wilson lives with his family.
“These concrete barriers surround basically almost three-quarters of my house,” he says in front of the several feet of dirt filled in by flooding between the rows of concrete. “It just washed all through here, so I just had a mote, a literal mote, around my house.”
Wilson lives below the eastern flanks of the San Francisco Peaks in Wupatki Trails, one of the hardest hit neighborhoods from this summer’s Pipeline Fire flooding. His property is caked in mud and bedraggled sandbags are stacked across every doorway.
“I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s just washed out,” he says. “It’s just soft, fine dirt everywhere—kind of a strange environment.”
Wilson says he’s lost count of how many times his house has flooded but during the height of monsoon season waters rushed through two or three time a week. He walks to a side door and enters the garage, which until recently was full of mud. Inside, the house looks like it’s just being built—the first two feet of drywall is missing, bare studs are exposed, flooring has been ripped out and appliances have been removed.
“We can’t stay here, we can’t live here ‘cause it keeps flooding. I have two small children and a pregnant wife so it’s not exactly an ideal situation,” he says with a nervous chuckle.
Wilson and his family have been forced to evacuate three times this summer because of wildfires and flooding. They’ve received a huge outpouring of help from the community, but restoration will be long and costly.
“It’s heartbreaking to see as a dad,” he says. “You don’t want kids to grow up that way, you want them to feel safe and comfortable and just be able to live life. So, you’re saying, what do I need to be ready for? There’s no longer a sense of stability.”
Officials have provided as much short-term mitigation as they can in the form of hundreds of thousands of sandbags and miles of concrete barriers just to weather monsoon season. But it’s still wearing down residents.
“Our community is emotionally exhausted,” says Coconino County Supervisor Jeronimo Vasquez who represents Wilson and others in flood-stricken areas northeast of Flagstaff. “We’ve been hit back-to-back—two fires and then flood events. It’s not sustainable. We need to be proactive and that’s where we’re looking at our forest restoration.”
And officials and scientists say that is the best way to counter these disasters made more intense by climate change.
“Arizona’s experiencing about a 2-degree increase in temperature Celsius, resulting in really just a variety of conditions that provide a huge hazard,” says Andrew Sanchez Meador, executive director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University.
He says these extreme events are likely to continue, and he and many fire professionals fear the possibility of another large blaze on the San Francisco Peaks.
“We as humans will learn how to live with this, but we shouldn’t have to and there’s a toll that it takes both on the people and the community,” he says. “You can see that, you can feel it pre-monsoonal, you can kind of feel the worry ramping up.”
But he holds out hope that forest restoration projects slated in the coming years could help defend against the twin threats of fire and flood and allow local communities time to plan for the inevitable next time.