Officials: No way to plan for closing mountain
As sheriff’s deputies saw it, snow revelers left them with one option: Close the mountain.
They hope they won’t have to repeat last weekend’s decision this weekend, but meteorologists predict snow. Deputies predict traffic jams.
The Mount Lemmon Highway was closed Sunday because Tucson’s favorite road trip destination was filled beyond capacity.
“It was gridlocked,” sheriff’s spokeswoman Deputy Dawn Barkman said Tuesday. “We had people parking in the roadway to play in the snow.”
Firefighters reported triple-parking-induced backups winding 20 miles down the mountain, all the way to Houghton Road.
Mount Lemmon got about 18 inches of snow last week, and another 5 inches fell Monday, National Weather Service meteorologist Chris Rasmussen said.
The Mount Lemmon Highway was closed Monday, as well.
The draw of snowballs and angel making was too much for some desert dwellers over the weekend, Barkman said. They leapt from cars that had barely stopped.
“The mountain is very popular,” she said. “That’s the problem.”
It’s a problem authorities acknowledge can have serious safety implications but one they see as impossible to solve.
“I don’t know what kind of pre-planning we could do,” Barkman said. “We can’t stop people from going up the mountain.”
A couple of times in recent memory, they did. It was a last resort, Barkman said.
She said deputies take care of traffic snarls when they happen and personnel has been shifted to deal with the crowds. Deputies assigned to rural areas help out the two Mount Lemmon deputies when needed.
Pima County Department of Transportation maintenance and operations manager Dave Cummings said no traffic mitigation plans are in the works because traffic is not often a problem on the mountain.
The Forest Service also reported no change in plans. Spokeswoman Heidi Schewel said the service has no idea how many people ascend Mount Lemmon because not everyone who passes by the toll booth buys a permit and many have annual passes.
For firefighters, the risks that come with winter weather and its enthusiasts is measured in injuries to people and recently damage to a fire engine.
When Mount Lemmon received its first snow of the season three weeks ago, firefighters responded to four calls over 2 1/2 hours on a single milelong stretch of highway, Capt. Dennis Rankin said.
As the fire engine tried to squeeze through the small space between double- and triple-parked cars, it lost a side-view mirror, paramedic Jesus Canales said.
Ten people have been injured playing in the snow this year, he said.
That’s typical. So is the struggle to get to those people.
It’s for that reason that Mount Lemmon business owners don’t blame county officials for the road closures.
A closed road may mean a closed shop for Phil and Carol Mack, owners of the Mount Lemmon General Store & Gift Shop, but they see it as a necessary halt to the chaos.
“From a business perspective, I have no complaint when they close the road because I know it’s justified,” Carol Mack said. “It’s hard to fit all of Tucson into such a small space.”
Sometimes the Macks even ask people not to come to their store.
Phil Mack said that while he understands the need to close the road, he wishes the need for closure could be quantified. He suggested a count at the poll station.
“There’s got to be a way to say when enough is enough,” he said.
Now, that decision is made by the two deputies on shift when the crowding seems out of hand. “It’s a judgment call,” Barkman said.
Business owners, public safety and Forest Service officials said common sense would go a long way to making Mount Lemmon more of a winter wonderland and less of a traffic nightmare. It would also make it safer.
Here are tips from officials on how to make a weekend trip up the mountain better:
• Obey parking rules. If you park with even one wheel over the white line, you could receive a ticket.
• When pulling off the road, check to see how deep the snow is. If a tow truck agrees to pull you out of the snowbank, you will likely have to pay a snow fee.
• Sled far enough away that you do not end up in the roadway. No one has been hurt that way this year, but emergency workers worry about the possibility.
• When sledding, use a sled. Paramedics treat many fingers cut by trash can lids and many puncture wounds on legs and butts poked by unseen tree stumps.
• Try a weekday trip instead of a weekend trek. On Tuesday, sledders had plenty of space to ride.Mount Lemmon snow fun
Mount Lemmon snow fun
Several visitors and many Tucsonans enjoyed the snowy slopes at Mount Lemmon Tuesday afternoon.
Producer: HEATHER RAFTERY/Tucson Citizen
Mount Lemmon got about 18 inches of snow during storms last week, and another 5 inches fell Monday, said National Weather Service meteorologist Chris Rasmussen.
Mount Lemmon’s Ski Valley said the resort had 6 inches of groomed powder and 29 inches of base snow Monday, though the slopes were closed.
The fire district reported 12 inches on the ground Tuesday, Rasmussen said.
“For the next couple days, everything looks great, then there is another system coming in,” he said.
Rasmussen said the next system will not likely be a major snow producer, but it’s too early to tell for sure.