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Some Phoenix hiking trails to close during extreme heat

July 11 Camelback Mountain Hiker Rescue.jpeg
Posted at 4:31 PM, Jul 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-14 15:48:09-04

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Parks and Recreation Board voted Tuesday to launch a test program that will close three popular hiking trails when temperatures are hot enough that an Excessive Heat Watch is issued.

Under the program, which runs July 16 - Sept. 30, when the National Weather Service in Phoenix issues an Excessive Heat Watch, both trails at Camelback Mountain -- Cholla and Echo Canyon -- and the Piestewa Peak trailhead will be closed from 11 a.m. - 5 p.m. The parking lots will also be closed.

All other trailheads will remain open.

The Cholla Trailhead has been closed for maintenance since March 2020. It's unknown when that project is set to be completed.

There is not a specific temperature that the National Weather Service uses to issue an Excessive Heat Watch, according to its website. Instead, NWS looks at the temperatures forecast and the level of heat risk and which populations will be most affected, similar to the Air Quality Index for those with respiratory concerns.

"When "High" or "Very High" HeatRisk conditions are forecast, an Excessive Heat Watch or Excessive Heat Warning will be issued," reads the National Weather Service's website. A "watch" means there is 50% confidence excessive heat will be issued and a "warning" means there is 80% confidence.

The Board considered the test program after the United Phoenix Fire Union asked that the trails be closed on excessive heat days to not only protect hikers, but to also protect the firefighters and paramedics that have to conduct those mountain rescues.

"These trails represent the most dangerous and challenging terrains in Phoenix to perform rescues at. Limiting access to these trails during times of extreme temperatures will make for a safer Phoenix and reduce putting our residents, visitors, and rescuers at unnecessary risk,” a representative wrote on the union’s Facebook page.

Last month, a dozen firefighters had to be sent home for heat-related concerns after back-to-back mountain rescues, the union said. Two had to be taken to the hospital.

More than 200 people are rescued each year from Phoenix mountains, preserves, and trails, according to the City of Phoenix.

While it happens throughout the year, but especially during the summer months, it's not uncommon for distressed hikers to be flown off the mountain or carried down the mountain on a Big Wheel due to dehydration, exhaustion, or injuries.

The Board said the three locations were based on the number of mountain rescues that occur there each year, as well as the difficulty rating of those trails and how that impacts the complexity of the rescues.

Based on data for 2018, 2019 and 2020, there were between 72 and 90 days in each of those years that would reach the criteria for the pilot program.