FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – More than 3 feet of snow forced officials to close dozens of miles of Interstate 40 through the northern Arizona mountains Thursday into Friday morning, leaving travel snarled across the region and residents busy digging out from a three-day snowstorm.
"Things have changed in the last hour to the point that we are looking at the definition of whiteout conditions across northern Arizona," said FOX Weather Meteorologist Nicole Valdes while reporting from Flagstaff, Arizona Thursday. "And the problems because of that are stacking up pretty quickly."
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One of the largest impacts was to regional travel.
"We just got an emergency alert on our phones here in downtown Flagstaff that I-40 eastbound are already shut down because of the really impossible visibility on the freeway there," she continued.
The prediction came true as eventually hundreds of miles of interstates and highways were closed Thursday due to heavy snow, including large sections of I-40 and I-17, plus US-191. Many of those closures lingered into Friday morning, but all of eastbound and most of westbound I-40 reopened just before 9:30 a.m. MT.
Heavy snowfall rates of 1-2 inches per hour accumulated to roughly a foot per day in Flagstaff. Through midnight Friday morning, the city has received 36.1 inches of snow at the airport and 34.3 inches in Downtown Flagstaff since Tuesday.
"It’s just a massive blanket of snow covering much of downtown Flagstaff," Valdes reported Friday morning surrounded by more than 2 feet of lingering snow in the town's Heritage Square. "Every pavilion; every entrance to every restaurant and business is completely caked in snow."
The storm is Flagstaff's biggest snowstorm since an "epic storm" dropped 40.8 inches of snow in Feb. 2019, according to the FOX Forecast Center.
"Be safe out there and try to stay off the roads across all of northern Arizona today," asked the NWS Flagstaff.
That snow was falling at unusually low elevations, down to about 4,000 feet and accumulating down to 4,500 feet. Flagstaff, at 7,000 feet elevation, is used to getting frequent winter snows, but heavy snows are more of a once-every-multiple-year event for neighborhoods at lower elevations.
"It's not too uncommon to see 20+ inches of snow every two years or so in the high country of northern Arizona," explained Valdes.
Even so, Flagstaff saw a daily record snow on Wednesday with 13 inches recorded downtown. Kids were out playing in the snowflakes for a second day in a row thanks to school snow days.
Ski resorts rejoice
Ski resorts couldn't be happier though. Arizona's Snowbowl already saw 26 inches in just 24 hours, and the good news has hit snow-starved Phoenix.
"Flagstaff, we're talking about an elevation difference of 6,000 feet or so from Phoenix. But a lot of people who live in the Valley like to hear when this (snow) is falling up here, make the drive up north on the I-17 and play in the snow, even for a few hours, right?" said Valdes. "But the Arizona DOT says things can get even more dangerous when you've got all the snow that's falling, at the rate it is here – you've got poor visibility. And when you add into the mix, cars pulled off onto the side of the freeway, hoping to get a glimpse and play in some snow, it makes things very dangerous."
While the sun was peeking through the clouds Friday morning, the snow wasn't finished in northern Arizona. Another 3-6 inches was forecast for Friday night into Saturday morning.