Phoenix firefighters get approval for hot-weather trail closures
The United Phoenix Firefighters Association got approval on Tuesday for a pilot program to ban hiking on Camelback Mountain and Piestewa Peak on the hottest days.
The 4-2 vote at a special meeting of the city’s parks and recreation council came after the union complained that heat-related rescues were on the rise, putting firefighters at risk.
A July 7 letter sent to the board and signed by union president Steve Beuerlein and other union members (see below) referred to a difficult day last month when 12 firefighters had to be sent home them and two hospitalized with sudden kidney failure, following three flashbacks. rescues upside down on a 116 degree day.
Beginning Friday and through September 30, the city will close trails on the popular and rugged mountains from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. if the National Weather Service has declared an “excessive heat watch” in effect. Confusingly, temperatures on these days vary depending on the average heat for that time of year, and can be referred to as “heat watch” or “heat warning” days.
The closures would be in place even on relatively cooler days. Last year a watch / warning was called in late April when the temperature was 102. In total, the NWS heat watches or warnings were in effect for 48 days in 2020.
“All trails associated with Piestewa Peak Trailhead” as well as Camelback’s Echo Canyon and Cholla trails are affected as they are the worst offenders when it comes to difficult and complex rescues. The doors to the car park will be closed during restricted days.
The Cholla Trail, which leads to the summit on the east side of Camelback, has been closed since March 2020 due to renovations and a dispute over the construction of a new trail. It shouldn’t open until at least next year.
Union spokesperson Captain PJ Dean said firefighters felt they had “no choice” but to push for restrictions. One of three rescues last month involved the helicopter extraction of a woman “foam in the mouth” after bee stings on Piestewa Peak, and the temperature was 115 – a degree from the temperature at which the helicopter cannot be used safely, he said. .
“The danger is real and it is getting worse,” Dean said. “They close the ski slopes when there is a risk of an avalanche. They close the beaches during periods of strong swells … [People] can just hike at another time of day. ”
While many question the common sense of people braving the mountains in extremely hot weather, hikers can be found on the trails even when temperatures soar to near 120. Many of these die-hard hikers dislike the ban. .
“That sucks,” said Qui Nguyen, who hiked the Echo Canyon trail on Tuesday afternoon when Phoenix’s official temperature was 106. He said it was not hot on the trail, although ‘He can understand the concern when temperatures rise above 115. The firefighters should be in better shape, he said.
“They’re trained to rescue people. They’re supposed to prepare to rescue people all the time… why aren’t you ready?” he said, adding that he had recently witnessed a rescue in which several firefighters “huff and puff” on the runway.
“I think firefighters need to get used to the heat,” said Camelback hiker Jay Curtis. “The firefighters are the ones with the problem. [They] should be able to do this without needing medical attention. ”
Local hikers often blame out of shape, ignorant and unacclimated residents for the number of rescues, but no specific statistics on the hometowns of those rescued are available.
Cathy Herzog, a visitor from Buffalo, New York, said she opposed the restrictions. She had decided to hike the Echo Canyon Trail on Tuesday despite the heat for a common reason: it was the time she had for her short trip. But Herzog, who is in good shape, was not nonchalant in the adventure, it was his first time on the track alone. She took a lot of water and asked a ranger what to expect when she arrived. She also turned around before she was even halfway up the steep trail.
“I have lived,” she said happily. “I took a lot of rest … You just have to be smart.”
Rescues on the Camelback and Piestewa trails have been a problem for decades, and they have increased with the popularity of hiking in centrally located mountain parks. Phoenix New Times has covered several tragic cases of hiker deaths due to the heat. For a January 2014 article on the history of Camelback Mountain, a Phoenix Fire Department official said New times he responded to approximately 50 hiker rescue calls per year from 2009 to 2012, usually with “an element of warmth on the call.”
Statistics released this week by the Parks Department show rescues have almost doubled since then in Camelback, which typically sees twice as many rescues as Piestewa. In 2018 and 2019, firefighters responded to 89 and 90 Camelback calls, respectively, and about half as many on Piestewa. Rescues fell to 55 on Camelback last year, but remained swift on Piestewa, which had 40.
Sarah Porter, one of two board members who voted against the trail closures, asked why the closures were needed now. Excessive heat is an annual occurrence in the valley, and the restriction comes without hard data correlating rescues with temperature, she said.
About 20% of all hikes that happen in Phoenix take place in Camelback and Piestewa, and the mountains “are part of what makes Phoenix a special city,” she said.
When the parks council considered a similar ban in 2016, many hikers objected, she recalled. The council gave in at the time and only banned trail dogs. The audience didn’t have the same opportunity to comment in person this time around; the board held its meeting virtually.
“We’re all very thankful for what the firefighters are doing,” Porter said, and they had a “good point” that rescues can be risky for everyone involved. But, she added, “It’s not our job to just give fire orders… Cut off access… to me is one of the most serious things we can do.”
The city has extended summer hours for Piestewa Peak, North Mountain, and Pima Canyon to South Mountain, keeping parking lots open until 9 p.m. But that’s not the case at Camelback Mountain, where rangers will continue to impose closures just after sunset.
Municipal fire departments and parks staff are due to present an “update and review” of the program in October.
Below – the letter requesting the closure of the trails by the United Phoenix Association of Firefighters: