The storms of the monsoon season in the Rim country are frightening and dangerous. But they also bring a wonderful perfume to the air and spectacular light shows to the night skies.
"We have more lightning along the Rim than anywhere else in Arizona," said Anna Mae Deming, who has been gathering data for the National Weather Service for many years.
The next time a storm heads in, make a couple of batches of popcorn, put some ice and sodas in a cooler, turn off the lights, open the curtains, blinds and watch the night sky light up. The power and magnificence of nature creates an awesome show.
A historic storm
Last year, as the monsoon season approached, The Rim Review history columnists, Jayne Peace-Pyle and Jinx Pyle turned their space over to Pat Cline, one the daughters of Gila County pioneers, and the mother of Gila County Supervisor Tommie Cline Martin. Cline shared a great story about a "rip, roarin'" storm that hit the Rim country the summer of 1955.
"I remember June 17, 1955 as the day "Hell Let Out For Recess" in Payson," Cline wrote.
"The day was just like any other hot day in June, but we knew there was no rain in sight.
"It doesn't rain in June; if it does, there won't be any summer rains because if it rains in June, it upsets ‘some cycle or other.' All the old ranchers and dry-land farmers in Gila County know this to be a fact, however, they all will tell you that ‘rain anytime is a blessing and we will take it.'
"June 17, 1955 was hot and dry -- very dry. It was a little after noontime and I was feeding lunch to my three kids (Tommie, Jerrie, and Jon) and waiting lunch for Raymond, who was working on a pump for Aunt Babe Holder who lived down on Texas Flat (east of the Julia Randall Rock Schoolhouse). We lived up on Cedar Lane, east of Highway 87.
"We had a dogie calf out in the front yard and three dogs. I went out to refill the ‘dog rock' with water for them. -- The dog rock was (is) a big metate that any animal fenced in the yard drank from, be it dog, cat, calf, rabbit or bird.
"I looked to the east and saw it was getting dark over that way, so I supposed it was getting ready to storm over in Pleasant Valley and on the reservation. We always said that those people in Pleasant Valley and on the reservation paid their tithe better than we did in Payson. Then I thought, nah, this is June, it never rains in June. That is just old Mother Nature teasing us.
"Back in the house, the kids finished lunch and my oldest girl, Tommie Rae, said, ‘It sure is getting dark. Is it going to rain?'
"I looked out the window and agreed with her that it sure was getting dark, but it probably wasn't going to rain.
"About 10 minutes later, the phone rang and there was no one there, but there was the awfulest howling on the line that I had ever heard.
"I looked outside in time to see all of the dogs and the dogie calf trying to get onto the porch, but they couldn't make any headway, because the wind was howling so hard. The kids were pointing out the window and yelling, but I couldn't hear them over the wind.
"I threw the phone on the hook, yanked the baby out of his highchair, and put all three of the children in the hallway. I told them to stay there.
"I tore out the front door and was slammed to the ground as if I had been hit. The wind was so terrible! I grabbed the calf by a hind leg and an ear, dragged it onto the porch, and shoved it through the door.
"The dogs staggered onto the porch just as the hail hit us. We took a few good licks and it hurt, let me tell you! The hail was the size and shape of your fist and it knocked the pup just goofy.
"I got everything in the house and into the hallway. I picked up the baby who was mad about being made to stay in the hall by his big sisters.
"I didn't know what to do. We couldn't hear each other yell because of the noise. ... The storm slowly began to wind down and when the roar died down to where we could hear ourselves think, the kids and I went outside to look around. The ice was 16 to 18 inches deep all over the neighborhood.
"All of the slate on our roof and that of the neighboring houses was on the ground in piles. The paint was beaten off of every house. There wasn't a leaf left on any tree. My rose bushes were sticks -- short sticks at that. Every flower and shrub was beaten to a pulp.
"Down on Main Street, across from where the firehouse is now, were four dead horses all in a heap under a big oak tree. ...
"Over in Texas Flat where Raymond was working on the pump, they didn't even know it had sprinkled.
"Out on Diamond Point, Walter Lovelady was on duty in the fire tower and he had seen the ‘thing' come off the Rim and go down Tonto Creek. Then he saw it turn and come over the buttes in the Green Valley Hills and head toward the tower he was in. It turned and headed for Starr Valley. Walter got on the phone and called his wife, Belle Lovelady, who was the telephone operator in Payson. He told her it was coming and she just plugged in all the lines and turned the crank. She was able to warn some of us, but the storm hit the phone line and all I heard was a roar.
"When it was all over and tallied up, there was a swath cut through the Buttes into Starr Valley, through Starr Valley, to the southeast side of Payson, west to the Payson Rock on the hill on the south side of the old meadow, and then it moved on to the southwest. No tree had a leaf. No garden or corn field in Starr Valley survived. There were five dead cows under the pine tree where you turn into the County Maintenance Yard in Starr Valley, four dead horses in Payson, and about a hundred stunned people with no paint on their houses and a need for new roofs. I can't remember about the windows, windshields, and car paint jobs, but it must have done a lot of damage to them, also.
"And then it rained. It rained for four or five days in a row. It stopped for three or four days and then it rained some more. It rained all through June, July, August, and into September. We got four and a half inches during the fall equinox. It rained enough that we collected our rain insurance during the rodeo.
"So, all of us ranchers and farmers who believe that if it rains in June we are just sunk for the rest of the summer with no summer rains, know that to be a fact, except for the time in 1955 when it made liars out of all of us. It may do it again this year."
I have lived in Arizona since 1965, except for a few years when I was on the Oregon coast in the late 1970s, and I have seen a good many summer storms. Probably the worst in recent memory was in the late 1990s while I was working for the Camp Verde Journal.
I was out and about on a couple of assignments and saw the storm moving in, down the valley of the Verde River. I had not seen a storm like it in Arizona before. It looked like the hard gales that blew in off the Pacific on the Oregon coast in winter -- and those are like the land fall of hurricanes you see on the news broadcasts.
My last stop was at the courthouse, which is on West Highway 260, between Camp Verde and Cottonwood. It is a little isolated from everything because it also houses one of Yavapai County's main jail facilities.
It wasn't yet raining when I went into the courthouse, it was just windy, but the storm hit within seconds. The wind was so strong it blew the rain sideways and there was so much rain, you could not see the cars in the parking lot, only about 12 to 15 feet away from the building.
But this is about lightning -- it can be scary ... A couple of times it has hit extremely close to where I have been: once at a Rim lake on a family fishing trip, lightning hit a tree on the opposite shore and another time, while our parents were away and I was taking care of my younger sisters, it so close to our home, the whole place shuddered from the impact. It has also killed a television set and telephone in my home.
The Arizona Public Service company has a list of precautions it suggests when you find yourself in a monsoon storm.
To help you prepare for a potential power interruption -- and to stay safe in the event of one -- APS offers five tips to help you get through storm season:
- Be prepared. Have the following items handy: battery-operated radio, flashlights, an ample supply of batteries and at least one telephone that is not cordless. The entire family should know where the flashlights are kept before an outage occurs. Do not use candles as a source of light. In the event of a prolonged outage, the media will keep customers informed.
- Look around. If an outage occurs, first check your neighborhood. If yours is the only home without power, check to see if a main fuse is blown, or a main circuit breaker tripped. If the outage is beyond your home, call APS.
- Stay away from downed power lines. In fact, stay away from all downed lines. Even if you believe it's a cable or telephone line, the dangers of electricity are simply too great to take that chance. Assume any line is an energized line. In the case of a downed line, immediately call 911, then APS.
- Turn off or disconnect all major appliances and sensitive equipment. However, do not turn off your refrigerator or freezer. Chances are you may forget to turn them back on once power is restored. Even with the power off, food will stay frozen 12 to 24 hours -- as long as the refrigerator and freezer doors are kept closed. Keep at least one light on, so you know when power is restored.
- If a power line contacts your car while you're in it, stay in the vehicle. Try to attract help by blowing the horn and remain calmly in the vehicle until help arrives. Keep others away. If you must leave, jump and land with both feet together, being careful not to touch the vehicle and ground at the same time.
What is lightning?
The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration gives the following information about storms, lightning and thunder.
A moving thunderstorm gathers a pool of positively charged particles along the ground that travel with the storm. As the differences in charges continue to increase, positively charged particles rise up taller objects such as trees, houses, and telephone poles. -- Have you ever been under a storm and had your hair stand up? Yes, the particles also can move up you! This is one of nature's warning signs that says you are in the wrong place, and you may be a lightning target!
The negatively charged area in the storm will send out a charge toward the ground called a stepped leader. It is invisible to the human eye, and moves in steps in less than a second toward the ground. When it gets close to the ground, it is attracted by all these positively charged objects, and a channel develops. You see the electrical transfer in this channel as lightning. There may be several return strokes of electricity within the established channel that you will see as flickering lightning.
The lightning channel heats rapidly to 50,000 degrees. The rapid expansion of heated air causes the thunder. Since light travels faster than sound in the atmosphere, the sound will be heard after the lightning. If you see lightning and hear thunder at the same time, that lightning is in your neighborhood.
Negative Lightning And Positive Lightning
Not all lightning forms in the negatively charged area low in the thunderstorm cloud. Some lightning originates in the cirrus anvil at the top of the thunderstorm. This area carries a large positive charge. Lightning from this area is called positive lightning. This type is particularly dangerous for several reasons. It frequently strikes away from the rain core, either ahead or behind the thunderstorm. It can strike as far as 5 or 10 miles from the storm, in areas that most people do not consider to be a lightning risk area. The other problem with positive lightning is it typically has a longer duration, so fires are more easily ignited. Positive lightning usually carries a high peak electrical current, which increases the lightning risk to an individual.
For more on the science of lightning, visit the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory on the Internet.