Natural Catastrophes Sent Fear Through Rim Country

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While most of our country suffers from natural disasters in one form or another, the Rim country remains relatively safe. We have our droughts and our fires, of course, and last week we considered the possibility of earthquakes. But what about lightning, wind and floods? Do we need to fear them in this secluded center of our wonderful state of Arizona?

When it comes to thunderstorms, the key word in the Rim country is "waiting." Central Arizona is dependent upon the storms that drive in from the Pacific Ocean and come up from the Gulf of Mexico. As the clouds roll over Arizona, they struggle to rise over these mountains and ultimately the huge wall we call the Rim.

Just north of the Rim's edge is a divide, and the rain that falls this side of it flows into the Verde and Salt Rivers, thence to the Gila. The rain that falls north of the divide flows into the Little Colorado.

Many pilots will tell you that the weather conditions in the Rim country are some of the worst and most unpredictable in the United States. Especially during the summer monsoon, there can be blue sky one moment and a thunder-driven cloud the next.

Scientists confirm that the Rim country is one of America's hottest spots for lightning. Those storms keep fire watchers jumping in their towers, sportsmen seeking shelter, and cowboys wondering where to avoid being struck down; certainly not under a tall tree.

The air near a lightning strike is heated to 50,000 degrees, hotter than the surface of the sun. It is that rapid heating of the air near a lightning strike that causes the shock wave we hear as thunder.

It is weird. but true, that lightning often strikes outside of a rainstorm, as much as 10 miles removed from any rainfall. The lightning strike that set the Dude Fire in 1990 was just one-half mile from where we sat on our cabin deck under a perfectly clear blue sky. The key is that if you hear thunder, you are close enough to it to take shelter in a building or a hard-topped car with the windows up. Lightning causes around 100 deaths in the U.S. each year, ranking second only to flash floods in weather-related deaths. Of course with the most severe rain storms come flash floods.

All Rim country residents and travelers respect the deadly potential of moving water. The beautiful thunderheads and lightning shows can be miles away on high, when suddenly a low rumble gives little warning that the dry wash where you are hiking is being scoured by a wall of racing water. The moving power of water has the unimaginable strength to move objects as heavy as to the 10th power of the water's speed. Whole trees become battering rams, huge boulders become steamrollers and small rocks become gigantic hail.

There have been 54 flash floods in northern Arizona since 1993, killing hikers, drowning automobiles and their passengers, washing out summer homes, and plowing through bridges. (See my article on floods in The Rim Review Jan. 21, 2001.)

Sometimes hail will accompany these Rim country thunderstorms. That can hurt. Large hailstones fall at speeds faster than 100 mph.

In September 1999, hailstones with a diameter of 2.75 inches (baseball sized) fell in Prescott Valley, injuring people and causing $18 million in damages.

It can happen in the Rim country, too.

What about tornadoes? We normally consider Arizona free from that menace, though we have all seen sizable dust devils picking up trash and tumbleweeds in their path.

Real tornadoes vary in intensity from 40 to 300 mph, and Arizona averages four weak ones each year. They usually occur from July through September.

In 1996, a Chino Valley tornado (north of Prescott) damaged two mobile homes, snapped power poles and caused $280,000 in damage.

Fortunately, Rim country canyons, mountains and valleys don't give this phenomenon much of an opportunity to form.

But speaking of natural disasters, there is one other that deserves our attention.

Arizonans are well aware of the giant crater in the earth east of Flagstaff. It was created when a 200,000-ton meteor hit the earth 50,000 years ago.

Knowing such events are always possible, the scattering of Rim country settlers watched the sky in fear during the summer of 1881.

A comet moved low over the southwestern sky, and with each passing night, its tail grew brighter. Speculation swept through mining camps and ranches and west of Green Valley to Marysville that perhaps that tail would envelope the earth and destroy everything in its wake.

Then one night near the end of June, the comet disappeared for Rim country sky-watchers. However, the people in Tucson thought the end of the world had come.

Eyewitnesses reported that at 10:40 that night "a sheet of white flame shot into the northern sky, followed by a sheet of glaring red, then the sound and shock of a terrific explosion."

The meteorite shower was accompanied by a series of explosions, white and red lights flashed and a dense cloud of smoke encompassed the center of The Old Pueblo. Dust and debris rained from the sky, large fragments at first then becoming smaller.

The Tucson Citizen told that many folks gave up hope and resigned themselves to the apocalypse. Many rushed to the San Augustin cathedral and prayed face down in the plaza. When the dust had settled nearly all the buildings in Tucson had sustained some sort of damage.

The crater was discovered a mile to the north. It was 70 feet in diameter and 12 feet deep, rimmed with dust as fine as flour.

Perhaps the Rim country is not as free from natural disasters as we like to think. Along with the natural beauty, we share in much of nature's excitement.

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