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Michaelson Johnson, Matt Sedillo and Michael Stauder may work for the city’s streets section, but this time of year, they are hunters.

But instead of weapons, they hunt with shovels and bags of asphalt. And instead of deer or elk, for them, it is pothole season.

On the morning of March 20, Johnson, Sedillo and Stauder stood next to their trucks in the intersection of East Ponderosa Parkway and North Locust Drive, sizing up their most recent prey. Their supervisor marked that pothole, but they also find them driving around, or receive tips from locals.

At this point, Johnson said the majority of potholes, those on main roads and those that are particularly large, have been dealt with. Now they are after those hidden on side roads and in neighborhoods.

As Stauder finished cleaning the gravel out of the pothole with a large broom, Sedillo called it a "gnarly one." It was three to four inches deep, with a diameter of about two feet.

Normally Stauder would be directing traffic and making sure Sedillo and Johnson are safe, but this morning, the intersection is mostly empty.

Keeping everyone safe while they are filling the potholes can be a challenge, Stauder said, especially on main roads and if drivers don’t slow down when they pass them.

All three of them want to go home at the end of the day just like everyone else, preferably with all their appendages intact, Stauder said.

But Johnson said when drivers see them filling potholes, many will slow down and even thank them as they pass.

This season for filling potholes has been a good one, said Scott Overton, city streets manager. The number of holes the city has filled is well into the hundreds at this point.

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Potholes, which are created by a combination of precipitation and cycles of warm and cold temperatures, are an annual problem in Flagstaff, Overton said. During a storm, water will seep into cracks in the road. When that water freezes, it expands and breaks the pavement, and when that water melts, a pothole begins to form.

“Flagstaff has one of the highest numbers of freeze-thaw cycles in the country per year,” Overton said. “We have about 270 freeze-thaw cycles in a year. So every night it freezes and then it defrosts and then it freezes, whereas back east, it freezes and it stays frozen. We don’t have that luxury.”

Because of the area's freeze-thaw cycles, preventative measures are often the most effective way to keep potholes from forming. Overton said making sure roads have good drainage -- so water is not continually freezing and thawing on a road -- goes a long way to preventing potholes.

Cracks are needed to start a pothole, so newly paved roads generally see far fewer than older ones, Overton said.

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Last year, the city repaved many roads on the east side and downtown. Overton reports they are seeing far fewer potholes on those streets.

Overton said as a streets section, for the first time they are also using software to track the potholes they are fixing. The city has used the software for some time to track the age of different roads, but now, every time Johnson, Sedillo or Stauder, or anyone else with the city fills a pothole, they also enter the location into their system.

Overton said they can use the software as a predictive tool on the state of streets in Flagstaff, better understanding how well newly paved roads are lasting.

While many potholes take only one or two bags of asphalt, that is not the case with the "gnarly one." The three men pull bag after bag off the back of their truck. By the time they stop, the hole has swallowed almost seven 60-pound bags of asphalt.

Come summer, the three may be back working in the same place, but this time repaving the section with hot asphalt. The asphalt they dumped this time is only a patch and may not hold up in the long term. 

And should they succeed, next winter they may be able to ignore the road entirely. 

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Adrian Skabelund can be reached at the office at askabelund@azdailysun.com, by phone at (928) 556-2261 or on Twitter @AdrianSkabelund.

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