Oak Creek Canyon on the mend but not out of the woods

Oak Creek Canyon on the mend but not out of the woods

Post-fire conditions in the Slide Fire burn area, including Slide Rock State Park, have improved significantly in the last year; however, residents of and visitors to Oak Creek Canyon still need to be prepared for possible flash flooding and debris flows during the monsoon.

PHOENIX--What a difference a year makes.


This time last year, federal, state and local government agencies—reminded of the flooding that followed the Schultz Fire in 2010—were preparing Oak Creek Canyon residents, businesses and several 100,000 annual visitors for the possibility of monsoonal flooding and debris flows after the Slide Fire.


Over two weeks in May and June 2014, the Slide Fire burnt 21,227 acres in scenic Oak Creek Canyon, north of Sedona, Ariz. Forty-six percent of the total acreage (or 10,182 acres) burned at what the U.S. Forest Service Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team defined as “moderate to high severity.” When a fire burns that hot, oils from the fuels create a water-resistant residue over the topsoil.


“All indications last year were that we were looking at imminent catastrophic flooding,” explained Coconino County Emergency Manager Robert Rowley. “The reports from the BAER Team and the U.S. Geological Survey were not written in terms of ‘if’ but ‘when.’ So when we had an early and active monsoon year, and nothing more than some minor debris flows occurred, we were all shocked, in a very good way.”


The lower-intensity storm systems that did sweep across the burn area are credited in the BAER report as having expedited plant growth and helping erode the oils covering the soil.


According to an Arizona Daily Sun interview with BAER team leader Rory Steinke, the flood threat in Oak Creek Canyon is down one-third to one-half from last year, which means the Canyon may not have to be closed to recreationists like it was last summer. That the field data suggests the flood risk in the Canyon is less than what it was last year is obviously good news, but it doesn’t mean the threat is passed.


“The recovery of the burned area has exceeded our greatest expectations; however, we must remember that it’s only been a year [since the Slide Fire,] and we’ve yet to see how the ground will react to a major rain event,” warned Rowley, “We’re preparing our response as if conditions were the same as last year.”


“If we can make it through one more monsoon without a major rain event, I think we’ll be much closer to being able to say we dodged a bullet in the canyon. I’m not ready to say that yet,” he added.


The BAER team conducted a Slide Fire Watershed Recovery Assessment in May. Based on their findings, the team submitted several recommendations to Coconino County and its response partners. Chief among them were that officials close select campsites and Slide Rock State Park during “temporary intense monsoon storms,” raise the threshold for flash flood warnings in the Canyon and keep the public informed of the hazard. It’s a job made harder by the fact that Canyon trails and campsites will remain open throughout the monsoon.


Coconino County is again working with the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA) to place RadioSTAT Portable Emergency Advisory Radio Stations at opposite ends of Oak Creek Canyon. RadioSTATs were used last year to broadcast instructions on what to do at the sound of emergency sirens. The Canyon is wired with a siren system that the Sedona Fire District can activate to alert people of a flash flood warning in the Canyon.


In addition to the RadioSTATs, the County will hang flyers in the Canyon, place portable message boards at its north and south entrances, and test the sirens, which they’ll do on June 24. Unlike last year, said Rowley, the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office will not close 89A during flash flood warnings.


Flooding is the most common natural disaster in the United States and a familiar cascading threat of the annual monsoon (late June to mid-September).


The word monsoon describes a seasonal shift in wind direction from the west or northwest in the winter to a southerly or southeasterly direction in the summer. The change draws moisture from the Eastern Pacific northward into the desert Southwest, where our extreme heat helps turn it into thunderstorms, including lightning, dust storms and heavy rains.


At the tail end of the 2014 monsoon in September, parts of the state were soaked in consecutive weeks by the remnants of hurricanes Norbert and Odile. Norbert set the record in some parts of the Phoenix Metro Area for the most rain in a calendar day. Meanwhile, flooding closed schools, businesses, and stretches of Interstates 17 and 10.


While it’s too early to know how the 2015 monsoon will play out, the State got a preview of the humidity and isolated thunderstorms that we identify with the late summer months when moisture from Tropical Storm Andres was pulled into Arizona earlier this month, setting a rainfall record.


If nothing else, the unprecedented weather of the last few weeks should remind us of the importance of year-round preparedness. Gov. Doug Ducey proclaimed June 14-19 Monsoon Awareness Week in Arizona, encouraging Arizonans to be “aware of the challenge of living with extreme heat, limited water resources, severe weather and floods.”


There are steps you can take before the monsoon to prepare for flooding and mitigate its possible impacts on your property, including:



For additional monsoon preparedness information and resources visit the Arizona Emergency Information Network website at ein.az.gov