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Fortifying Sunnyside

Sandbags are unloaded onto Main Street in Sunnyside on Wednesday morning as crews work to protect individual homes from floodwaters that may come from the Museum Fire burn area.

Beneath the Dry Lake Hills and the Museum Fire scar, residents have been filling and stacking sandbags in preparation for the worst, a real flooding threat that could endanger their families, homes and community.

The future concern for residents in the Mount Elden Estates, Grandview, Linda Vista, Paradise Way and Sunnyside is that the fire has severely burned the soils in the Dry Lake Hills, hardening it into a substance that has been compared to glass. Any rainwater that hits this glass-like soil will not absorb and instead plunge straight toward these communities below.

Here is a look at flash flood facts and how people should prepare:

FLASH FLOODS

A flash flood is a sudden torrent of water that threatens life and property. The speed and quantity of the flow determines how dangerous different flash floods can be; a flash flood in a canyon will act differently from a flash flood on flat land.

Water turned black from a mix of ash and sediment is expected to plunge down from the Museum Fire scar. It could take anywhere from 20 minutes to 3 hours for flooding to reach communities. Large, dangerous flash flooding has been described as sounding like a train coming at your home.

Rain does not need to be falling where you are in order for there to be a flash flood; the main concern is if it is raining on the burn scar.

CAN FLOODING BE DEADLY?

Yes. Last year, the National Weather Service reported 84 people died across the United States from flooding, but each year the numbers shift depending on storm severity. Over 30 years, the national average of flash flooding deaths is 127 per year.

If flooding occurs in roadways, stay away from the water. Six inches of water can knock over adults, and 12 inches of rushing water can carry away most cars. Over half of all flood-related drownings occur when a vehicle is driven into hazardous flood water.

Flash floods can pick up debris like cars, toys, trees, boulders, trash and bushes that can make responding to flooding events very complicated and very dangerous.

Arizona law says that anyone who must be rescued from floodwaters after driving around barricades may have to pay up to $2,000 for the rescue.

WHEN SHOULD YOU EXPECT FLOODING?

Coconino County and the National Weather Service will send out notifications based on rain gauges that were installed on the mountain.

Currently, Coconino County will send out alerts to Mount Elden Estates if nearly a half inch of rain falls in 15 minutes. The county will also post information on its social media accounts.

If the rainfall gauges measure three quarters of an inch of rain in 15 minutes, the county will send out alerts to Mount Elden Estates, Paradise Way, Grandview and Sunnyside. People with cell phones in the area will also receive a notice, similar to an Amber Alert.

The weather service will also put out flood watch and flood warning alerts on television and radio when floods are expected or happening.

Currently, more data is being processed to create a more accurate map of flooding conditions.

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HOW SHOULD YOU PREPARE FOR THE WORST?

You should not wait to hear a flash flood to prepare for one.

Sandbags are available for threatened communities. Coconino County and the City of Flagstaff said people who are outdoors during a flash flood should get indoors or to high ground, and stay away from drainages. If your home is impacted, call 928-213-2990 or 911 for emergencies.

Pay attention to weather systems moving through the area on weather apps or official National Weather Service channels. Sign up for the Coconino County emergency notifications at coconino.az.gov/ready, and ensure your wireless emergency alerts on smartphones are activated.

People can also visit the City of Flagstaff’s rain gauge webpage to see the how filled rain gauges are on the mountain, which were made to update regularly.

HOW LONG WILL FLOODING BE A CONCERN?

“Right now we’re saying 3 to 5 years,” said Lucinda Andreani, Coconino County public works director.

That time frame can fluctuate depending on how the forests and plants regrow through the burned soils. The danger could even extend beyond 3 to 5 years.

In 2018, eight years after the Schultz Fire, a large amount of rain fell on the Schultz Fire scar and flooded communities below it. The county’s work done to mitigate flooding impacts helped keep the community from being impacted by the rushing water.

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Scott Buffon can be reached at sbuffon@azdailysun.com, on Twitter @scottbuffon or by phone at (928) 556-2250.

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Senior Reporter - Cops, Environment

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