A slow, wet winter storm dumped four to six inches of snow on Payson and more than 10 inches of snow on Pine, shutting down schools across Rim Country, trapping residents in Pine and Christopher Creek and spurring a slew of slide-offs.
The first of two storm fronts dumped a few inches of snow on Rim Country on Saturday, startling early risers with a blanket of white. The storm passed on through on Sunday, only to yield to a much heavier snowfall starting early Monday morning.
School officials who woke to clear skies at 2 a.m. on Monday found a heavy storm starting up by 5 a.m., prompting them to cancel classes to assure the safety of the school buses.
Rim Country residents woke to a steady fall of huge, wet flakes, which prompted many to break out snow shovels — and others to cancel plans for the day and town offices to close. The snow continued steadily into the afternoon, but the front began to break up by 3 p.m. and residents went to bed under once-again clear skies.
However, with an overnight low of 15 forecast, school and highway officials worried about black ice Tuesday morning caused by the melting snow from Monday and the frigid temperatures.
The forecast calls for clear skies and a warming trend through the week, with highs rising to the mid 50s by Friday and lows remaining in the mid-20s.
The storm produced a rash of calls for police. “It has been a busy day,” said Sgt. Erik Axlund with the Arizona Department of Public Safety. Calls for help kicked off early Monday morning, with multiple vehicles sliding off Highway 87 between Payson and Pine.
The Gila County Sheriff’s Office responded to nine reported slide-offs Monday, none with injuries.
Later in the day, the Arizona Department of Transportation restricted travel on Highway 87 near Sunflower to vehicles with chains or four-wheel drive.
Again, multiple vehicles were sliding off the road due to ice and snow. Some motorists were even trying to back down the hill.
Near milepost 223, on Highway 87, several semis could not make it up the hill and deputies had to help tow them, he said.
No vehicles were damaged in the slide-offs and there were no reports of injuries.
On snowy days, Payson Unified School District Facilities Manager Todd Poore wakes up early to assess road conditions. “We start at 2 a.m. and try to make the call by 5 a.m.,” said Poore of the procedure he and his partner, Mark Henning, use to determine whether to call a snow day or not.
Poore said he and Henning drive all of the bus routes from Whispering Pines up the Houston Road off Highway 260 to Colcord Road and up and down the trouble streets in Payson, such as Phoenix Street.
“From 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. it gets the coldest,” said Poore. “When the sun comes up it makes it tricky.” Poore has only hours to make a decision to keep hundreds of employees from coming to work and school children from losing a day of vacation.
“I woke up at 2 a.m. and saw stars in a clear sky,” he said. “At 4 a.m. it was the same thing. By 5 a.m., though, it started dumping.”
Poore and Superintendent Ron Hitchcock decided by 6 a.m. they would call for a two-hour delay in the school schedule.
By 7 a.m., the two decided to call the whole day off.
“We’ve never had one like this,” said Poore. “We waited too late to drive all the roads, but by the time I got out to the district, I had a tough time driving in my two-wheel drive car.”
Poore said he has a list of people he calls when the decision to call a snow day goes into effect: Hitchcock, School Board President Barbara Underwood, all the school principals, food service and facilities staff, and an automated call out to all families.
The decision to call a snow day is not small. Other districts key off of PUSD’s decision.
On Monday, the Pine-Strawberry School District called a snow day after PUSD did and so did Gila Community College.
The National Weather Service called for temperatures to drop to 16 degrees overnight on Monday. By 6:30 p.m., temperatures had dropped precipitously and by 8:30 p.m. a crust of ice had formed in certain areas of the road.
“I’m looking at waking up at 2 a.m. again,” said Poore of the Monday night conditions.
His worry about Tuesday morning?
“We might have to call a two-hour delay to the school day,” he said.
Roundup reporter Alexis Bechman contributed to this article.