After 38 cars of a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, and released hazardous materials into the area, residents of Flagstaff — where roughly 100 trains pass through each day — have been wondering: What if it happened here?
First, a few statistics about train derailments. According to the Federal Rail Administration (FRA), in 2022 there were 1,168 train derailments in the U.S. — about average for the last 10 years. In the same year, the FRA tracked 5,933 cars carrying hazardous material (hazmat), and 10 releases of hazmat across the country.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) — the railway that runs through Flagstaff — reports that “more than 99.9% of rail hazmat shipments reach their destination without a release caused by a train accident.” It also reports that “tens of billions of dollars in private investment to improve rail track and equipment, as well as develop and implement new safety-enhancing technologies, have helped drive rail hazmat accident rates down 55% since 2012.”
That's not to say derailments don't happen. Flagstaff has seen two derailments in recent years. One was in 2018 and another occurred in 2019.
BNSF train derails east of Flagstaff
Still, compared to other transportation methods such as shipping by truck on interstate highways, “rail is the safest way to transport [hazardous] materials,” said Josh Crane, public information officer for the Flagstaff Fire Department (FFD).
That being said, if a hazardous material train derailment did happen in or around Flagstaff, FFD would be among the first responders.
“The City of Flagstaff has 18 certified hazmat technicians who have been trained and gone through schooling on how to deal with these issues,” Crane reported.
These city responders would be joined by BNSF emergency response teams, which are stationed along railways and ready for deployment 24/7.
“They'll have teams who are able to respond within two to three hours, sometimes shorter,” Crane said.
Crane explained that one of the first tasks once on the scene would be identifying what kind of hazmat — if any — is present in the derailment. To that end, city teams are equipped with an app capable of identifying each railcar and its cargo. As a backup, BNSF teams — and their manifests — will be in communication immediately.
FFD hazmat teams are equipped with texts and apps that identify the properties of any chemical in question.
“We have apps that will tell us what the chemical is, what its boiling point is — basically everything about the chemical or the product, and then how we as a fire department, and our hazmat technicians are going to treat that situation," Crane said.
Amid fallout over the toxic train derailment in East Palestine, workers who helped with the cleanup have now reported feeling sick.
The qualities of the hazmat involved determine the response, Crane explained, and sometimes that can put first responders in the position of choosing between the lesser of two evils.
That was likely the case for the East Palestine incident, said FFD Captain Keith Cashatt. He explained that in the case of a chemical like vinyl chloride — which the derailed Norfolk Southern train was carrying — impingent of flame causes polymerization that in turn would build up pressure inside the tanker car.
“You can only imagine, you have 11 tanks and they're increasing in pressure because the inhibitor has broken down because of the heat that was on it,” Cashatt said. “So now you have 11 pressure bombs.”
Explosions from pressurized chemical tankers are a serious risk, Cashatt said, capable of sending blast waves and shrapnel long distances. There are multiple types of pressure explosions, one of which is known as a BLEVE — short for “boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion.”
Northern Arizona has experienced a BLEVE on the rails. In 1973, a leaking propane tanker in Kingman ignited from static electricity, and the resulting BLEVE produced a fireball 1,000 feet in diameter. The shock wave was heard and felt across a 5-mile radius and 16 firefighters were killed.
“There were people that were a mile away that suffered flash burns just from the concussion,” Cashatt said of the 1973 Kingman explosion.
Suffice to say, when it comes to pressurized rail tankers, allowing them to explode — let alone 11 of them — could be “running the risk of leveling the entire community,” Cashatt said. The choice made in East Palestine was to conduct a “controlled release” of the pressurizing chemicals, creating a lesser evil against the threat of explosion.
If Flagstaff first responders had to make similar decision, there are a number of factors that would be considered. This is where the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) -- which would have been called at the outset of the incident -- would come into greater play.
The ADEQ is capable of modeling how a chemical plume would respond in any relevant conditions such as wind, humidity, topography and more. This modeling would then inform exactly how the “controlled release” of a chemical would be conducted — and the necessary evacuations zones, if applicable.
After the initial emergency response, the ADEQ would also play a large role in the long-term recovery. A hazmat incident response can be broken into two categories, said Sam Beckett, chair of Coconino County’s Emergency Response Commission. The initial emergency response described above, then the long-term recovery operation that would be conducted by an Emergency Operations Support Center (EOSC).
The EOSC is where “most of the bigger items get coordinated,” Beckett said. “Coordination with ADEQ, the Environmental Protection Agency, and others.”
Similar to modeling winds in the event of an airborne release of hazmat, the EOSC would also model possibilities such as the potential for groundwater contamination through drainages — a risk factor that Flagstaff is exceptionally well prepared to track.
“Our region has been fortunate and unfortunate with all of our fires in that we've received funding to get all of our floodplains mapped,” Beckett said. “So we would have access to that data fairly easily.”
The situation in Palestine, Ohio is nothing short of catastrophic. Veuer’s Tony Spitz has the details.
Beckett explained that in both the initial and long-term response to a hazmat incident, there is a tight, well-trained network of communication between the city, county, state and private agencies. Whether the incident be hazmat, earthquake, or even terrorist attack, “we do regional planning exercises all the time between different agencies and jurisdictions within Coconino County,” Beckett said.
“So if there were an incident, we’d know who to call,” he added.
But who would call the people of Flagstaff to let them know about something like a hazmat incident? There are multiple channels through which citizens should expect to receive information.
In the “lights and sirens phase” of an emergency, Flagstaff citizens should expect to see alerts from the Coconino County emergency notification system, Beckett said.
“I always encourage everybody to go to the county's website and sign up for the county emergency notification system,” he added. “While they do have the ability to utilize IPAWS -- the integrated public alert warning system which is what you get when you get an Amber Alert or other alert that you don't sign up for -- most of that is going to be based off of a polygon map.”
In other words, unless someone is within a certain area, they might not receive IPAWS alerts from the county. But if someone were to sign up for emergency notifications directly, they would be more likely to receive important information.
“That will keep you up to speed on emerging incidents that are large enough that we need to notify the public at a rapid response kind of phase,” Beckett said.
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When asked to evaluate Flagstaff and Coconino County’s emergency response capacity, Beckett said, “The initial attack phase is going to be good.”
“With what we have here, resource-wise, it will be really good,” he added. “It's that prolonged event that lasts multiple days when the staffing becomes an issue, especially technical staffing. That’s where we start working through county and state emergency operations centers to bring in the right resources.”
Even in the case of a prolonged hazmat event, Beckett still has confidence that the northern Arizona emergency response community is well equipped to handle a hazardous scenario. When he’s hosted regional training with partners from other areas, he’s noticed that “the one piece everybody notes is the close relationships that everybody has within the region.”
“Whether it's fire agencies, police agencies, the jurisdictions and municipalities, whether it's cities, different governmental agencies and private agencies, it’s a pretty close-knit group, a group within the region who works very closely with each other,” Beckett said. “You don't always get that.”
“We work with a lot of different partners,” he added. “To try and ensure that if something were to happen, we are ready.”
To sign up for Coconino County Emergency Notifications, visit coconino.az.gov/2612/Emergency-Notification-System.
WASHINGTON — Tom Brundy, an alfalfa grower in California's Imperial Valley, thinks farmers reliant on the shrinking Colorado River can do more to save water and use it more efficiently. That's why he's installed water sensors and monitors to prevent waste on nearly two-thirds of his 3,000 acres.
But one practice that's off-limits for Brundy is fallowing — leaving fields unplanted to spare the water that would otherwise irrigate crops. It would save plenty of water, Brundy said, but threatens both farmers and rural communities economically.
“It’s not very productive because you just don’t farm,” Brundy said.
Many Western farmers feel the same, even as a growing sense is emerging that some fallowing will have to be part of the solution to the increasingly desperate drought in the West, where the Colorado River serves 40 million people.
“Given the volume of water that is used by agriculture in the Colorado River system, you can’t stabilize the system without reductions in agriculture,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “That’s just math.”
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is looking at paying farmers to idle some fields, many in the vast Imperial Valley in California and Yuma County in Arizona that grow much of the nation’s winter vegetables and rely on the river. Funding would come from $4 billion set aside for Western drought aid in the Inflation Reduction Act.
Federal officials and major irrigators have been negotiating for months. Neither side has disclosed details of the negotiations or said how much money is being sought or offered.
U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, a Colorado Democrat, said fallowing has to be on the table. The challenge is figuring out fair payments when farmers work land of varying quality and plant crops of varying value, he said.
“Water in certain parts of the Colorado River basin is worth more than water in other parts. And somehow the Bureau of Reclamation has got to address that in a way that is fair, or at least perceived to be,” Hickenlooper said in an interview.
Agriculture uses between 70% and 80% of the Colorado River’s water, and ideas for reducing that have long been contentious. Farmers and the irrigators who serve them say their water use is justified since nearly the entire country eats the produce grown in the region, as well as meat from cattle fed on the grasses grown locally.
Water officials from cities and other states with less demand from farms say agriculture’s large take from the river allows wasteful farming practices to continue even as water grows scarcer. They note that Western water law, which gives preference to more senior users, allows farmers with those rights to grow thirsty crops in converted desert even as key reservoirs fed by the Colorado dip to all-time lows.
Tina Shields is water manager for the Imperial Irrigation District, and advises farmers to first save water through efficiencies like drip irrigation, choosing less water-intensive crops and using water sensors to cut waste. But she acknowledged that fallowing will have to be part of the equation as states heed a call by the federal government to cut their use by 15% to 30%.
“As much as we don’t like fallowing,” Shields said, joking that the practice is known as the “F-word down here,” she said some amount will be needed to conserve the additional 250,000 acre-feet of water the district has said it would save — or roughly 8% of its allotment from the Colorado River. (An acre-foot of water is enough to submerge one acre of land with a foot of water and roughly how much two to three U.S. households use per year.)
In the Imperial Valley, leaving fields idle to save water isn’t a new idea.
For 15 years, Imperial Irrigation District ran fallowing programs as part of a historic water transfer deal it cut with San Diego in 2003. The programs expired in 2017. Nearly 300,000 acres of farmland were fallowed, conserving 1.8 million acre-feet of water and costing $161 million in payments to farmers, the district said.
The Colorado River is in worse shape now, but in Imperial Valley, memories of that program linger. And farmers want far more than they were paid back then.
Larry Cox, who has grown produce and grasses in the Imperial Valley for decades, said he idled a few hundred of his 4,000 acres back then. He used the payments to buy sprinkler pipes and other equipment to make his irrigation systems more efficient. But he also let go between 5% and 10% of his workforce of irrigators, farm hands and tractor drivers.
Today, he worries about the effect of fallowing on rural communities. Besides the potential economic losses to farmers, the businesses that supply them with tires, fertilizer, gas and other needs are affected.
“It damages our community as a whole,” he said.
Many farmers also fear that once land is taken out of production, it won’t be farmed again. Part of the fear comes from how water rights work in the West, but also because fallowing can degrade soil quality and make it difficult to return the land to production later.
Paul Brierley, executive director of the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture at the University of Arizona, said disrupting farm operations has downstream effects.
“Farming is just like any other business," Brierley said. "They’ve got capital invested, they’ve got employees, they’ve got markets for their products. You can’t just farm part of the time and not the rest.”
A failed proposal from Yuma County farmers last year showed how difficult it may be for federal officials and the farmers they've targeted to reach a deal. In that case, the farmers proposed the government pay them around $1,500 per acre-foot of water not used for four years, but the deal went nowhere.
A measure of how much Reclamation is willing to pay came in a separate offer made to farmers in Lower Basin states — Arizona, California and Nevada — for $400 per acre-foot.
Buschatzke said farmers in Arizona felt even the $1,500 offer was lower than they deserved based on what they make on the produce — let alone how important it is to consumers, he said.
“It is certainly a business, but they also see it as doing a lot of good for the entire nation with what they grow out there in Yuma,” Buschatzke said.
Since farmers in Imperial Valley hold senior rights to Colorado River water, mandating water cuts there is almost impossible without inviting litigation.
“We can’t make our growers participate,” Shields said. “We have to provide them with a business decision.”
The Flagstaff Visitor Center's snowplay hotline received 1,627 calls between Dec. 1, 2022, and March 5. It was an unsurprisingly high volume of calls, especially given that the 95-day period sits smack dab in the middle of the second-snowiest winter on record to date for the area.
Sherry Mason was one of the people who manned that snowplay hotline. She moved to Flagstaff about three years ago after spending roughly 30 years in the Valley.
She describes the snow as magical and mesmerizing. As a visitor’s services specialist at Discover Flagstaff, she not only gets to walk in Arizona’s winter wonderland whenever the flurries descend, she can now act as a shepherd for visitors — the vast majority of whom she can relate to.
In the summer, Mason interacts with people from all over the world, drawn to northern Arizona by its proximity to the Grand Canyon and diversity in natural landscape.
In the winter, the demographics of visitors change a little. More people are coming up from the Valley, as 61% of callers on the snowplay hotline are from the Phoenix metro area.
The No. 1 question those visitors tend to ask, Mason said, is: “How are the roads?”
In discussing road conditions with visitors, Discover Flagstaff performs a couple of tasks. They communicate closures they’re aware of, and defer to the Arizona Department of Transportation’s 511 line for tourists to gather the most up-to-date information.
“I worked when we were out of the office because of the snowstorm," Mason said. "I was taking calls and fielding them remotely. That was the big thing. People were on the road at the time. ‘We’re coming into Flagstaff, what does the road look like, can we get in to Flagstaff?’ they’d say. There were times where I had to kind of guide people around. 'You’re not going to be able to use this road, you’re going to have to take this one just to keep everybody safe.'"
Navigating safely to Flagstaff has posed some problems for people this winter. Not everyone took advice from experts or managed to use safe routes into town.
“A lot of the issues that we have responded to are people utilizing apps like Waze, Google Maps, or Apple Maps, they’re trying to find alternative routes. A lot of the times that takes them down unmaintained or Forest Service roads. That could be deadly if someone gets into an area where they don’t have cellphone service or their vehicle is disabled,” said Aaron Dick, spokesperson for Coconino County Search and Rescue. “They need to be up-to-speed on the weather forecast, not blindly following a map application. Really consider what the signage says and what’s happening.”
By mid-February, search and rescue had seen about three times the average number of missions they’d responded to in the past, year to date. A sizeable number of them, Dick said, were related to people being stuck in their vehicles.
That issue is sometimes augmented by visitors underestimating the sheer amount of snow they encountered this season, according to Mason.
“They get here and obviously they had to plan their trip beforehand. They had no idea that there was going to be a big snowstorm coming in, they thought it was just going to be kind of minor. They see that we are expecting some snow, but they don’t understand the magnitude of how much is going to come,” Mason said.
Snowplayers also have a tendency to pull off the side of the highway as soon as they see powder, creating dangerous situations. Snowplay on the side of the highway is illegal, and according to law enforcement agencies, a pretty significant problem.
“If you see snow on the side of the highway, don’t pull over to play in it,” said Bart Graves, spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS).
He added that the very same conditions that are prime for sledding also produce icy roads that are easy for motorists to slide off of, hitting parked vehicles or worse.
Once visitors arrive, there are still more safety warnings Discover Flagstaff has been tasked with disseminating.
“We tried to encourage everybody to stay off those train tracks,” Mason said. “It’s a difficult thing to do, because they’re intrigued by it. People go out there and they like to get close. We’re just trying to tell everybody to try and avoid train tracks and just play safely — not near the tracks or the road. We try to emphasize how easily accidents can happen. People don’t want to wait for trains to pass and they try to rush it; we try to tell everybody to take their time, try not to get too close, stay off the tracks.”
Meg Roederer, communications specialist for Discover Flagstaff, explained, some of those safety messages are shared even before people leave the Phoenix area.
This winter, she’s worked closely with Phoenix media outlets to offer safety information to potential snowplayers before they ventured out. According to ratings data provided by Roederer, an estimated 26,000 people tuned into the messaging.
In-person, Mason regularly works to help people understand where it is safe to play.
“We try to guide them to the designated snowplay areas. We’ll guide them over to the Flagstaff snowpark. They can also go to any of the city parks -- Buffalo Park, Foxglenn, Flagstaff Snow Park. Those are great areas to be,” said Mason, who tailors her recommendations to each visitor based on what they tell her they’d like to do.
Skiers, sledders and snowman builders might all be given different instructions. The top three destinations for snowplayers, according to data gathered by Discover Flagstaff, are the Flagstaff Snow Park at Fort Tuthill, other city and county parks, and Arizona Snowbowl, respectively.
Snowbowl does not release its attendance numbers. It says, however, that this season’s been one for the books.
“We’re almost at double the snowfall [compared to last year]," said Snowbowl marketing manager Kyle Sawatzke. "Whenever we get a bluebird day there are tons of people out here enjoying the prime conditions. The snow has been immaculate. It truly has been an incredible year; conditions are the best I’ve seen in ages.”
The resort is on track to be open seven days a week in April for the first time ever, according to Sawatzke. The April sunshine should provide optimal conditions for newbies to discover a love of skiing, as the snow will be soft.
“The big thing is we’re seeing a lot of first-timers come out to enjoy the snow. A lot of people are taking advantage of our free beginner lesson,” Sawatzke said.
County search and rescue told the Arizona Daily Sun that it was concerned about skiers and snowboarders who were not necessarily new to the sport venturing outside of the designated ski areas this winter.
Dick said some people tried to take backcountry routes this season without the proper equipment and wound up sinking in the snow, leading to the need of rescue.
“We have a lot of people skiing or snowboarding outside the boundary and getting in trouble,” Dick said.
Dick also said that avalanche risk is real in northern Arizona — and not talked about enough.
“Any time you get new snow, that changes the avalanche risk.” Here’s what you need to know before heading out into the backcountry.
“There’s a lot of people in this state who come up from Tucson and Phoenix that may not know there is real avalanche risk on San Francisco Peaks,” Dick said.
Dick added: "Without having skills, equipment and knowledge, we want to discourage people from going into the backcountry. Someone can dig a pit, but snow can be variable. You could trigger a weak layer. Every year there are people who have avalanche training and equipment who are killed in avalanches.”
Snowbowl does a good deal of mitigation work to keep designated ski areas safe, according to Sawatzke.
“Our patrol is sweeping the upper bowl every day, checking snowpack daily. We have a great team that’s connected to Kachina Peaks — some of the best in the business. We make sure areas are closed off when they need to be. They’ve been getting everything open as fast as they can,” he said.
The majority of visitors who stayed and played in Flagstaff during the past few storms returned home safely and without needing to have search and rescue deployed on their behalf.
According to Discover Flagstaff, the heavier storms might have delayed foot traffic downtown or made businesses a little less busy while highway closures were in place. When those closures lifted and it was safe to drive to Flagstaff and recreate here, people did.
According to data from the City of Flagstaff, the average occupancy rate for Flagstaff hotels in January was 58.6%, 3.6% higher than last year. The revenue per available room clocked by Discover Flagstaff increased 6% over last year in that same month.
Data from February and early March is still being compiled, so it’s early to check the overall outlook for the season. Yet, the people who work on the front lines — answering questions and talking with visitors -- are hopeful the memorable winter season will turn out to have been a good one for hotels, restaurants and other local businesses throughout the city.
Sierra Ferguson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.