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Homes at risk in Flagstaff as a wet monsoon falls on vulnerable burn scars

In northern Arizona, flooding threatens about 500 homes, the result of a worst-case scenario where several burn scars in the pine tree mountains are now exposed to a heavy monsoon year. 

People in Flagstaff’s Doney Park have grown accustomed to the flooding. First the pounding rains on the flanks of the mountains overlooking the town, the Rave alert warnings, then a tense quiet for more than an hour before the floods gather and the waters begin to surge again. 

Doney Park is a small community of about 6,000 people settled in the lowlands and foothills of old volcanic fields northeast of Flagstaff. Rains usually gather slowly in the San Francisco Peaks, then wend their way down through channels and streams. Two wildfires last spring broke the community’s peace with the mountains; now floodwaters, rocks and debris come down in torrents. It’s overwhelmed previous flood mitigations that were put more than a decade ago.

Paul Foxx stood outside a neighbor’s home as the waters filled the culverts and began to flood the road Saturday afternoon.

"Our house almost flooded. We actually had a couple neighbors who actually … I wasn’t home yet, my wife was out of town. And so these guys, these guys, a handful of neighbors grabbed some sandbags and added a couple rows. We had three last time and it went over that," he said.

Last week 18 inches of water surged over many properties here.

"Could have been a lot worse," Foxx said.

The flooding has cut channels through the neighborhood. Stephanie Treptow warded the first flood away from her back porch with pushbrooms and sandbags.

"It was just a slow moving thing and it really was flooding other parts of the yard but we were able to keep it pretty much off the deck and keep it at bay. 

Engineers contracted through Coconino County anticipated many of the areas where flooding would hit. Treptow’s house wasn’t one of them.

"You just realize, wow, we certainly weren’t prepared," she said.

Like Foxx and many other residents in the area, Treptow has a two-foot high wall of hundreds and hundreds of sandbags surrounding her home. It’s become clear the floodwaters will come down off the mountain and then hit homes from several directions. 

Flood control is a daunting task here. County officials are racing to add two-ton concrete barriers, called Jersey barricades, at the most vulnerable homes. National Guard soldiers, inmates in Winslow, firefighting crews and masses of volunteers are filling sandbags. Nearly 1 million are needed. Pickups, trailers, tractors and cars clean out pallets of sandbags almost as soon as they’re dropped off. 

The Pipeline Fire charred areas that had burned a dozen years ago and then destroyed new segments of forest. 

"This house got flooded on the interior," said Lucinda Andreani, the county’s flood control district administrator. She drives us through a subdivision at the base of the Peaks’ eastern slopes. It was the first community to flood this year.

"You can see they cut out the drywall," she said, pointing at a home in the Wupatki Trails neighborhood.

Floods surged against the home, then through it. Culverts are over-run everywhere; rail fences are collapsed under the weight of mud.

Heavy equipment is pervasive, clearing out retention basins from fresh ash and mud before the next rain. 

Crews are also building new areas for the mud to spread out before it creates new torrents. 

The county is seeking additional federal funding to tackle the forest’s overgrowth before the next fire comes. 

"Otherwise we’re going to do this exercise we’re doing right now over and over and over again," Andreani said.

As badly as homes are affected on the city's eastern side, the costs of damage would have been astronomical on the west side where Flagstaff's economic hubs of downtown and NAU are.

If that had happened "we would see this year, catastrophic levels of flooding through downtown Flagstaff," she said.

Jay Smith is the county forest restoration director. As he drives through the burn area where the Pipeline Fire started last month, he points to thick clumps of thin dark pines leaning against one another, fighting for water and light. Smith call this an unhealthy forest.

"We're so far behind, we have about 300-400,000 acres we need to treat on the Coconino and Kaibab National Forests. I would guesstimate it's probably 70% to 75% needs to be treated; we're that far behind," he said.

"We're not allowing natural fire to come through and kill them so the only other way to do it is to mechanically thin it. And then we want to introduce fire back into this ecosystem, because that's the cheapest way to manage this. But you can't set a fire in this right now until it's thinned mechanically," he said.

As for Treptow, she is staying put.

"I have no intention of selling," she said when I asked her.

She’s hoping the county’s mitigation efforts will work. 

"After that, I don’t think it will be like a continuous thing. I just don’t think it will be," she said.

The forecast calls for high chances of rain and flash floods this week.

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Fronteras Desk senior editor Michel Marizco is an award-winning investigative reporter based in Flagstaff.