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Flagstaff, Arizona, digs out from a 36-inch snowfall that shattered records

Some places see three feet of snow in an entire winter. And then there’s Flagstaff, Arizona, which saw that much snow Thursday in 24 hours.

“This was a very cold and highly unusual event for northern Arizona,” said Brian Klimowski, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service office in Flagstaff. “We had record snowfall in several locations – certainly a historical event.”

Historical indeed. Flagstaff, Arizona, officially picked up 35.9 inches, its highest single-day snow total in the 126 years that records have been kept. It shatters the previous one-day total of 31 inches, which had stood since 1915.

Thursday’s accumulation also falls just shy of setting a one-day state record. The Arizona city would have needed about three more inches to make that mark.

Despite the monster snow totals, the event was well-predicted. Klimowski said the precipitation shield extended farther west than forecasters had originally expected.

“The storm pretty much came as forecast, but was a little bit heavier in the Flagstaff area,” he said.

The Weather Service office did keep two staff members at a nearby hotel, expecting the 10-mile commute from downtown to be challenging. “We had to plan ahead to make sure we’d have full staff here,” Klimowski said.

A number of major roads have been shut down, including a nearly 50-mile stretch of Interstate 17. The Arizona Department of Transportation has no estimate for when the highway, which leads to Flagstaff from the south, will be reopened.

At the county level, the process of clearing road has proven equally challenging.

“Our crews have been working 24/7 throughout this storm,” said Matthew Rudig, Coconino County, Arizona’s public information officer. “We have 30 or 40 graders and plows out there at all times. A lot of our crews are working 12-hour shifts. But many roads are still impassible or dangerous.”

The county also opened an emergency operations center to help manage and provide logistical support to first-responders. The Arizona Daily Sun reports Flagstaff’s Pulliam Airport was shut down because of a “complete lack of visibility” on the runway.

The whopper snowstorm inched Flagstaff above its mean seasonal accumulation.

“This puts us right above normal for a season,” Klimowski said. “We average around 100 inches. Right now we’re at 101.”

In an average year, another 32 inches falls after Feb. 22. a scenario that would put 2018-19 among the 10 snowiest winters in Flagstaff. The snowiest winter was in 1895, with 207 inches.

The wintry wonder wasn’t relegated only to Flagstaff, Arizona. Snow fell in Tucson, Arizona, where the average February high is 69 degrees. The city’s first measurable snow in six years made for a curious sight as it blanketed cactuses and palm trees in a white dusting.

And the flakes made it into the Phoenix metro area, where snow levels dropped below 2,000 feet.

“Snow actually did come into our suburbs of Scottsdale and Fountain Hills,” wrote Amber Sullins, chief meteorologist at ABC-15 in Phoenix. “That’s after these locations picked up over an inch of rain. That’s record-breaking rain for us!”

Sullins expects the unusual cold will mark a record-low high temperature for Feb. 22.

“We’ll only make it into the low-50s. The previous record cold high is 54 from 1897 – 122 years ago!” she wrote. “It’s not often we break record cold temperatures anymore in this warming climate.”

As the storm leaves Arizona, it will bring a dose of mountain snow to New Mexico before a warm-up arrives early next week.

But as the cleanup continues in the wake of Thursday’s event, Sullins summed it up: “It’s been a wet and wild couple of days!”

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