Wildfire burn scars and flash flooding in Flagstaff: Here's what you need to know

During the 2022 monsoon season began, parts of Flagstaff saw multiple rounds of flash flooding as a result of rain falling on burn scars created by wildfires in recent years.

"We had over 45 major flood events during this last summer during monsoon season," said Luncinda Andreani with the Coconino County Flood Control District.

The flash floods have damaged homes and other properties, leaving residents with not only a mess to clean up, but also headaches, as they deal with insurance matters.

"This is flash flooding to a degree that we don’t typically see. This is very upsetting to people of course," said Andreani.

Here's what you should know about the flooding.

Why is the area getting flooded so often?

According to a flood risk analysis conducted by the City of Flagstaff in the fall of 2021, the Spruce Wash area, which was impacted by the Museum Fire in 2019, could see flooding from even moderate-sized rain event.

The Museum Fire, according to the National Weather Service, burned in the Dry Lake Hills area, which is located to the north of Flagstaff. The fire was reported in the morning of July 21, 2019, and at one point, the fire was reported one mile to the north of the city. The fire was declared fully contained on Aug. 12, 2019.

City officials say another fire named the Pipeline Fire has also left portions of the area at a high risk for post-wildfire flooding during the monsoon season.

The Pipeline Fire, according to Inciweb, started on July 12, and it burned 26,532 acres of land. A man named Matthew Riser was taken into custody for allegedly lighting toilet paper on fire and placing it under a rock.

According to Flagstaff city officials, the Pipeline Fire burned across much of the same area that was burned during the Schultz Fire in 2010, and impacted a number of area watersheds, including Schultz Creek and the Lenox/Wupatki Trails. City officials also say soil in some areas affected by the Pipeline Fire, such as the Government Tank watershed, was burned severely, which means the soil will act like glass and shed water rapidly, in a condition known as hydrophobic soils.

"If you were to pour a glass of water on [the hydrophobic soil], it would just run off it like you poured it on your kitchen counter," said Andreani, in July 2022.

What does this mean for residents in the area?

For residents living in areas that are at a high risk for flooding as a result of the Pipeline Fire and Museum Fire burn scars, officials say they are strongly encouraged to purchase and maintain flood insurance.

"Flood insurance should be maintained even in those areas where flood mitigation measures have been constructed. Flood insurance remains the only way to address impacts to homes from flooding," city officials wrote.

For areas affected by the Museum Fire burn scar, a siren alert system has been set up in four neighborhoods, which will be activated if the area sees 0.75 inches of rain in 15 minutes, also known as Threshold 3.

In addition, emergency notification alerts will be sent to people living in the following areas affected by the Museum Fire burn scar:

  • Mt. Elden Estates
  • Paradise
  • Grandview
  • Sunnyside

City officials say emergency notification alerts will be sent to people living in the following areas affected by the Schultz/Pipeline Fire burn scars:

  • Timberline
  • Wupatki Trails
  • Fernwood
  • Doney Park

Text alerts will also be sent to cell phones registered to addresses in those areas.

"The response to flood warnings is to shelter in place, as has been the protocol since 2019," city officials wrote

In addition, Flagstaff city officials say sandbags can prevent or reduce flood damage to homes.

What is Coconino County doing to mitigate flood risks?

Funding from the Federal Government means the county can undertake projects aimed at mitigating flood risks.

$90 million has been approved by the government, with $50 million going towards flood mitigation efforts.

"Expanding the capacity of existing channels by deepening them and converting them to concrete rather than turf lined channels," said Andreani. "In three of the corridors, it will be brand-new channels."

The other  $40 million will go towards watershed restoration projects, like rebuilding the forest and stopping erosion.

"They not only, to some extent, reduce the volume of water - slow down the water - but importantly, really reduces a lot of the sediment and debris that’s been coming down," said Andreani.

What are schools doing to mitigate flooding risks?

On Aug. 9, one day before the start of the 2022-2023 school year, officials with the Flagstaff Unified School District held a meeting to update parents on how they will handle road and possibly schools flooding.

"We've been dealing with the flooding events that have occurred for the last month," said Flagstaff Unified School District Superintendent Mike Penca.

Two schools within the FUSD, namely Sechrist Elementary School and Killip Elementary School, are most at risk for flooding. Both are located near a corridor that has already seen multiple rounds of flooding this monsoon season. In fact, Killip had to be closed in August 2021 due to flooding problems. The school, complete with improvements, will reopen to students on Aug. 10.

"It's really kind of a celebration of returning home to their neighborhood school and to an amazing facility that we're really proud of," said Penca.

As for Sechrist, school officials have sent a note to parents of children attending that school, alerting them of the district's plan if a flood event happens while students are at the school.

During the meeting, Penca led the discussion on flood mitigation efforts and shelter-in-place plans for students, should the situation arise.

"We really believe that the safest place for our students to be is in that school during that flooding event," said Penca. "We wouldn’t want students released and walking into the neighborhoods that are being impacted by the flood. Obviously, if the highway is closed, our parents aren’t going to be able to get in to pick them up."

How much has the flooding cost the area so far?

After rounds of flooding, the bills are stacking up for Coconino County.

For summer 2022, the county has already racked up $7 million in short-term costs, from filling sandbags to cleaning neighborhoods.

Long-term costs, meanwhile, are projected to possibly reach $150 million. The cost covers things like watershed restoration, as well as bigger and better flood channels and detention basins, in addition to infrastructure repairs to nearby highways.

"Obviously, advocating for federal funding to support that level of investment," said Andreani. "That's certainly something that cannot be covered by the district alone."

The biggest cost, however, may not appear on a spreadsheet. That cost is apparent to people who live in one of the 1,500 homes that are at risk of flooding at any given moment.

"They are afraid, and they need to be afraid. It’s horrific. It’s scary," said Andrerani. "A lot of this happens at night. What makes it even more scary is they’re dealing with kids, so they have to keep track of what they’re doing at all times, and it takes an emotional toll."

Optimistically, Coconino County officials believe it will be at least three years before the flood problem subsides.

How are residents coping with the flooding?

In our reports on flooding in the Flagstaff area, residents have talked about how flooding damaged their homes, or otherwise impacted their lives.

"Through here, [floodwaters] knocked my fence down," said John Sullivan, whose driveway is covered in two feet of silt. "I can hear it coming a half mile up in the woods before it gets here."

"The entire house, the first floor was flooded with six to eight inches of water, along with mud and sediment," said Chase Wilson, in June 2022. "There is about a foot of mud in the garage, so everything downstairs was trashed."

Wilson's property has been flooded six times. In addition to dealing with flood damage, he is also dealing with insurance.

"When the fire first happened -- I was here 12 years ago. I knew that it was going to happen again because when the mountain burned, it flooded. So I called my State Farm rep and I said 'I'm going to need flood insurance.' They said you're not in a flood zone, and I said, 'I know, but we had the fire, and I'm going to need it.' And he said, 'OK, we'll get back to you.' Well, a week went by, and they didn't get back to me," said Wilson, in August 2022. "That following Monday, I called and said, ‘remember how I said I was going to need flood insurance?’ And they were like, ‘yeah?’ ‘Well, my house flooded. It would have been helpful.’"

Wilson identified his State Farm rep as Justin Simons. He said he went Simons, and the homeowner asked the local insurance agent if State Farm could backdate flood insurance, as he has call logs proving he asked for flood insurance two weeks before this monsoon season turned into a nightmare.

"I looked up some Arizona laws saying that there were cases where a flood was caused by a fire, very similar situation. And under Arizona, they had the insurance company that was involved in that case pay for it. So in my claim, I sent them that information. I sent them verification that this was caused by the fire up there, the burn scar, the water, everything the county had," said Wilson.

Wilson said the example he provided was ‘Irrelevant.'

Some residents in the area have been trapped in their homes as a result of the floods.

"We can't get out," said Ruth Sisco.

Sisco said mud about three feet high blocked her home's driveway, as well as surrounding her home.

"Our road up to our house, from the gate there, there’s no gravel, anything. We don’t even have a driveway," said Sisco.

Sisco and her husband, Glenn, are in their 80s, and Glenn has suffered a stroke recently.

"He needs medical care, and if something was to happen, they couldn’t get back to them," said Sisco.

Neighbors are offering the Siscos help.

You can check the latest weather conditions by visiting the FOX 10 Phoenix weather page, or download the Free FOX 10 Weather app, which is available on Apple iOS and Android.

Rain/flood safety tips

The American Red Cross' tips for heavy rain situations and flood safety:

  • Turn around don’t drown! If you must drive and you encounter a flooded roadway, turn around and go another way.
  • If you are caught on a flooded road and waters are rising rapidly around you, get out of the car quickly and move to higher ground.
  • Tune in to your local radio, NOAA radio, or news channels for the latest updates.
  • If your neighborhood is prone to flooding, be prepared to evacuate quickly.
  • Follow evacuation orders and do not attempt to return until officials say it is safe.
  • If power lines are down, do not step in puddles or standing water.
  • If power is out, use a flashlight. Do not use any open flame as alternate lighting.

Satellite and radar image