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Cody Bashore-Perales / Cody Bashore, Arizona Daily Sun 

Flagstaff forward Troy Yazzie (10) goes up for a layup during Friday night's game against Sunrise Mountain at Sinagua Middle School.

Over 9 inches and counting: Snowfall brings accidents, closures in Flagstaff

The National Weather Service’s issuing of a winter storm warning proved congruent with much of the west and southwest as cities across the region were pummeled by icy, powdery precipitation over the last week.

Tuesday’s storm in Flagstaff, which lasted into the early hours Wednesday, dropped 9.4 inches at Flagstaff’s Pulliam Airport and 10 inches in areas including Kachina Village, prompting Flagstaff Unified School District to cancel school and Coconino Community College to start on a delay. Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy, NPA and BASIS were also closed due to the weather.

By 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, Flagstaff and its surrounding areas had received anywhere between four to nine inches; Doney Park saw five to six inches and Fort Valley six inches, according to the National Weather Service in Flagstaff.

Snowbowl received a total of 19 inches of snow in 24 hours, and 27 inches in 48 hours.

Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun 

Sarah Butler watches her dog, Thea, Wednesday morning as she runs across the Aztec playing fields following a winter storm that dropped over 9 inches in parts of Flagstaff overnight.

Both the city and county were on a two-hour delay and FUSD had posted the notification that school was canceled on their website and social media at 4 a.m. Wednesday morning.

Northern Arizona University stayed open, with classes running on a regular schedule. According to Kimberly Ott, spokesperson for the university, the university has not closed often in the last years.

If a storm is in the forecast, NAU sends out its “Stay in the Know in the Snow” information packet via a campuswide email, Ott said.

The packet, among other tips, encourages students as well as employees to utilize the campus public transport during inclement weather and advises people where to look for news of cancellations and delays.

According to NAU, campus crews plow the roads beginning at 2 a.m. and take note of road, sidewalk and parking lot conditions on campus. NAUPD and facility workers also drive throughout Flagstaff to determine road conditions before making a recommendation to the university.

“In general, faculty, staff and students should assume that NAU will continue to operate on a regular schedule despite inclement weather,” the packet reads.

NAU also coordinates with the city, county FUSD, CCC and the National Weather Service, according to its website.

Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun 

Keesha the cat watches as Marie Zelenka shovels snow Wednesday morning following a winter storm in Flagstaff.

In addition to closures, Tuesday’s storm accounted for a number of vehicular accidents, increasing the presence of law enforcement and emergency responders on the roads. Flagstaff Police Department, the Arizona Department of Public Safety and Coconino County Sheriff’s Office were each called to assist in a variety of weather-related incidents.

According to Sgt. Charles Hernandez, Public Information Officer for the Flagstaff Police Department, the agency responded to a total of 24 weather-related incidents from the morning of Feb. 5 through 8 a.m. on Feb. 6.

“Eight of those were motor-vehicle assists, which cover anything from slide-offs to someone getting stuck due to snow or ice,” Hernandez said.

The department also responded to 13 calls of non-injury collisions, and three collisions in which injuries occurred.

Local law enforcement also assists DPS, who logged several accidents on both major highways that pass through Flagstaff.

“In the last 24 hours we responded to 24 slide-offs in and around the Flagstaff area, primarily along I-17 and I-40,” said Bart Graves, Media Relations Specialist with the Department of Public Safety.

Through Wednesday morning, DPS responded to 18 calls involving non-injury collisions, six calls for injury collisions and 34 calls for motorist assists.

“Basically it’s what we get every time there’s a storm like this one. The road conditions are treacherous and as a result we have an increased number of accidents,” said CCSO Lieutenant Jim Coffey.

According to Coffey, Sheriff's deputies responded to a number of calls regarding slide-offs and collisions -- especially on windblown roads such as Leupp Road and Townsend Winona Road, he said, adding that hilly parts of Flagstaff including Kachina Village and Mountainaire also saw a concentration of accidents.

Other county agencies were also on the roads for much of the day and night. According to Matt Rudig, Public Information Officer with the county, both plows and graders were in operation. The county has 15 plows and eight road graders. 

“We plow about 750 miles of roadway to help keep them open and passable,” Rudig wrote in an email.

Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun 

Lilly Zelenka, 16, clears the driveway of her home Wednesday afternoon after a winter storm dropped several inches of snow on the Flagstaff area overnight, leading area schools to cancel classes.

The City of Flagstaff has its own fleet of plows for within the city limits, each with cindering capabilities. They also have eight road graters, five backhoes and several dump trucks that can be used in major snow events. The city is responsible for 700 center-line miles of streets.

With the snowfall also comes the increase in traffic and a swell of tourism.

“We’re getting ready for what we expect will be increased snowplay traffic this weekend,” Coffey said. "All over the county, in fact. And the Highway 180 corridor — the challenge that brings is unlawful parking and littering.”

DPS is tasked with patrolling a large swath of the busy thoroughfare, which also takes drivers to Arizona Snowbowl, while CCSO monitors the Baderville and Fort Valley neighborhoods off 180.

According to Coffey, CCSO rarely gives warnings these days, instead directly ticketing drivers.

“We’re kind of beyond warnings and are issuing citations at a pretty significant rate," he said. "From the time [the car] gets into the neighborhood they’re already in violation of laws, failing to obey traffic control devices that we have set up on the highway. These neighborhood roadways are for residents only so they’ve already violated that too and may be charged with trespassing."

The forecast calls for sun the next few days, with high temperatures in the low 40s. Next week will bring slight chances of snow with moisture likely to continue until the end of the month.

As helicopter logging takes off, some residents feel noise worth the benefits

The San Francisco Peaks stand out above the forests and can be seen from the houses and streets of Flagstaff. The peaks are covered with snow during the cold winters, and buzzing with hikers, bikers and other outdoors folk during the summer.

Now helicopters are adding to the mountain traffic as they transport fallen trees off the steeper portions of the mountain in an attempt to thin the forests through the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Projection. The project aims to prevent high-severity wildfire and post-wildfire flooding in the forests surrounding Flagstaff’s residents and resources.

Helicopters have been lifting and transporting bundles of cut trees to planned landing areas since mid-January. The operations will take place during daylight hours, seven days a week, for what they expect to be three to five months, according to a release from the project.

Many residents whose back doors open up to the national forest say they hear the helicopters. And while the helicopters can be heard outside of many peoples homes surrounding the closure area, some residents don’t mind the current level of noise if it means they can reduce the risk of wildfires.

Wanda Krenke, who lives behind the Flagstaff Medical Center and near the helicopter operation, said she has seen and heard the helicopters operating from inside her home. She lives on the edge of the forest near the Flagstaff Medical Center and said they’re used to medical transport helicopters flying near their home.

“It doesn’t bother us,” Krenke said. “It’s pretty quiet up here. But then again, weather has changed since it’s started, so how much have we really heard?”

Krenke said she supported the helicopter thinning and as a person with asthma, she supports it more than prescribed burning.

Marissa Moezzi, who lives on a road attached to North Quintana Drive, said she doesn’t mind the helicopter noise and can hardly hear it from inside her home. Moezzi said she has lung cancer and likewise favors the helicopter operations much more than the prescribed burns.

“I’m not foolish, I don’t think we can do nothing. I don’t want Flagstaff to burn down,” Moezzi said. “But I feel like I would love to see more effort put in to alternative methods."

"Helicopters don’t seem ideal, but what can you do?” she added.

The Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project was approved by voters in 2010 for $10 million to thin the amount of trees from several areas around the city in the hopes of preventing catastrophic forest fires.

The current helicopter operations include nearly 900 acres of the Dry Lake Hills areas that is too steep for normal mechanical thinning operations. The two contracted thinning groups splitting the acreage include Markit! Forestry Management from Colorado and Smith Forestry Services Inc. from Oregon.

John Winnicki, who lives up East Mount Elden Lookout Road within the closure area, described his home of 40 years as “landlocked” by the forest. In June he said he packs his valuables into separate family homes or storage units to make possible fire evacuations easier.

He said that he supports the mission of the project, and since it began has noticed the ponderosa pines on his property were too growing too close together, a sign of an unhealthy growth.

“Being here so many years, I look at all the trees I have here -- none of them have gotten any bigger, they’re still too close,” Winnicki said.

He said he hears the sounds of the helicopter echo off the side of the mountain and can see them from his back door. Since the operations began in January, Winnicki said that the helicopters have not flown over his house.

“It’s no worse than having traffic on the [Highway] 180. You live on 180, you get used to it. You live with it,” Winnicki said. “This is a benefit for us. They’re not doing it for them; they’re doing it for us.”

Residents concerned over proposed cell tower proximity to gas line

How safe can it be to construct a cell tower in the vicinity of an interstate, high-pressure gas pipeline?

That is one question many residents living near the Trinity Heights United Methodist Church are asking as they continue to fight to prevent the approval of a cell tower proposed on a section of the church's land.

Although on land owned by the church, the tower's proposed site sits just over 20 feet north of three high pressure natural gas lines controlled by the company Kinder Morgan.

Traveling from the east, the 24-inch, 30-inch and 36-inch pipelines pass under the church’s parking lot as they carry gas through northern Arizona to California at pressures between 600 and 800 pounds per square inch.

To provide electricity to the tower, a new electric utility line would also need to be installed crossing under the three pipelines.

And that has residents worried, including Carrie Warman, who not only lives near the proposed site but has been working on gas pipeline projects in California for the last two years.

“They don’t understand what a big deal this is and how dangerous building around a pipeline is,” Warman said, speaking of the company who has proposed the tower, Pinnacle Consulting. “[The pipeline] wasn’t even considered as a factor.”

Warman pointed to the fact that Kinder Morgan had not been made aware of the most recent developments toward construction of a tower near the line until they were notified by a neighbor only days before the first planning and zoning meeting.

Kinder Morgan had been told by Verizon a few years ago that in the future, development of a tower along the line was planned, but had not been informed that a final location had been decided.

Warman said she also worries because the planning documents Pinnacle Consulting submitted to the city had to be changed after Kinder Morgan became aware of the site and did not include depictions of infrastructure that would prevent accidents.

Michelle Lamoureux, a spokesperson for Pinnacle Consulting, disagreed when the concern was brought up at a community meeting, saying that such infrastructure was not depicted on documents because they are so early in the process.

The infrastructure Warman references, Lamoureux said, will be included on construction plans but are not necessary for planning and zoning purposes.

Neil Gullickson, the planning development manager for the city, agreed and said generally, such infrastructure is included farther down the line.

Nonetheless, Warman said she does not believe it is safe that a cell tower is built in the vicinity of a natural gas pipeline. Any accident or malfunction with the tower -- if it falls, catches on fire or there is an accident during construction -- could be far worse because of the presence of a pipeline, Warman said.

“No one pays attention to [pipelines] when everything is going right and no one is left when something goes wrong,” Warman said.

And Warman has had experience with gas pipeline accidents in the past.

Warman said when she was working on a gas line in 2017, another line owned by a different company experienced an accident only a few miles from where she was.

In that case, a maintenance team had been looking at the line in an area near Newberry Springs, California when one of the maintenance workers smelled a gas leak. Everyone in the team ran to escape the explosion that followed. Although no one was hurt, a number of heavy construction vehicles were destroyed, with the explosion also causing a small brush fire.

And if there is a leak in this section of pipeline, Warman believes the tower will be just one more piece of infrastructure with the possibility of creating a spark.

Any leak can be especially dangerous during construction when sections of the line might be exposed, Warman said, referencing a study by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration that looked at 20 years of pipeline accidents.

That study showed that about 35 percent of serious accidents occurred due to third party damage while excavating.

According to Lexey Long, a spokesperson for Kinder Morgan, the company does take a multitude of measures to ensure leaks -- let alone some kind of accident -- never happen, including monitoring their lines 24 hours a day and seven days a week.

Long added via email that the company does not track cell towers adjacent to other stretches of their line, meaning there may be any number of towers already along their thousands of miles of pipeline.

Long also said there are certainly ways to remain safe when building near pipelines and when such projects occur, the company has someone on site.

And this was something pointed to by Lamoureux as well.

“The reality of it is that Kinder Morgan has I don't even know how many miles of pipeline across several states. So there is work being done around and under the pipeline all the time,” Lamoureux said.

Crisis escalates in Virginia; top 3 Dems under fire

RICHMOND, Va. — The political crisis in Virginia spun out of control Wednesday when the state's attorney general confessed to putting on blackface in the 1980s and a woman went public with detailed allegations of sexual assault against the lieutenant governor.

With Gov. Ralph Northam's career already hanging by a thread over a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook, the day's developments threatened to take down all three of Virginia's top elected officials, all of them Democrats.

The twin scandals began with Attorney General Mark Herring issuing a statement acknowledging he wore brown makeup and a wig in 1980 to look like a rapper during a party when he was a 19-year-old student at the University of Virginia.

Herring — who had previously called on Northam to resign and was planning to run for governor himself in 2021 — apologized for his "callous" behavior and said that the days ahead "will make it clear whether I can or should continue to serve."

The 57-year-old Herring came clean after rumors about the existence of a blackface photo of him began circulating at the Capitol, though he made no mention of a picture Wednesday.

Then, within hours, Vanessa Tyson, the California woman whose sexual assault allegations against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax surfaced earlier this week, put out a detailed statement saying Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him in a hotel room in 2004 during the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

The Associated Press typically does not identify those who say they were sexually assaulted, but Tyson issued the statement in her name.

Tyson, a 42-year-old political scientist who is on a fellowship at Stanford University and specializes in the political discourse of sexual assault, said, "I have no political motive. I am a proud Democrat."

"Mr. Fairfax has tried to brand me as a liar to a national audience, in service to his political ambitions, and has threatened litigation," she said. "Given his false assertions, I'm compelled to make clear what happened."

Fairfax — who is in line to become governor if Northam resigns — has repeatedly denied her allegations, saying that the encounter was consensual and that he is the victim of a strategically timed political smear.

"At no time did she express to me any discomfort or concern about our interactions, neither during that encounter, nor during the months following it, when she stayed in touch with me, nor the past 15 years," he said in a statement.

Tyson said she suffered "deep humiliation and shame" and stayed quiet about the allegations as she pursued her career, but by late 2017, as the #MeToo movement took shape and after she saw an article about Fairfax's campaign, she took her story to The Washington Post, which decided months later not to publish a story.

The National Organization for Women immediately called on Fairfax to resign, saying, "Her story is horrifying, compelling and clear as day — and we believe her."

The string of scandals that began when the yearbook picture came to light last Friday could have a domino effect on Virginia state government: If Northam and Fairfax fall, Herring would be next in line to become governor. After Herring comes House Speaker Kirk Cox, a conservative Republican.

At the Capitol, lawmakers were dumbstruck over the day's fast-breaking developments, with Democratic Sen. Barbara Favola saying, "I have to take a breath and think about this. This is moving way too quickly." GOP House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert said it would be "reckless" to comment. "There's just too much flying around," he said.

The chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, Del. Lamont Bagby, said, "We've got a lot to digest."

Cox issued a statement late Wednesday calling the allegations against Fairfax "extremely serious" and said they need a "full airing of facts." Cox also urged Herring to "adhere to the standard he has set for others," a nod to Herring's previous call that Northam resign.

Northam has come under pressure from nearly the entire Democratic establishment to resign after the discovery of a photo on his profile page in the Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook of someone in blackface standing next to a person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.

The governor initially admitted he was in the photo without saying which costume he was wearing, then denied it a day later. But he acknowledged he once used shoe polish to blacken his face and look like Michael Jackson at a dance contest in Texas in 1984, when he was in the Army.

Herring came down hard on Northam when the yearbook photo surfaced, condemning it as "indefensible," and "profoundly offensive." He said it was no longer possible for Northam to lead the state.

On Wednesday, though, Herring confessed that he and two friends dressed up to look like rappers, admitting: "It sounds ridiculous even now writing it."

"That conduct clearly shows that, as a young man, I had a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behavior could inflict on others," he said. But he added: "This conduct is in no way reflective of the man I have become in the nearly 40 years since."