Deadly corridor for dust storms at Picacho Peak

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by The Associated Press

Video report by Kim Quintero

Posted on November 17, 2013 at 7:19 AM

Updated Sunday, Nov 17 at 7:20 AM

Map: Deadly pileup

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TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) -- A 2-mile stretch of highway halfway between Phoenix and Tucson is Arizona's deadliest corridor for dust storms, data show.

More than 50 vehicles have crashed on Interstate 10 near Picacho Peak since 2000, resulting in at least eight deaths. Three people died in a 19-car pileup on Oct. 29 when a dust storm popped up without warning.

"People are going to die in the future as well," said state Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, who was caught in the storm.

The danger is most acute at mileposts 214 and 213, north of Picacho Peak and south of Eloy, according to the Arizona Daily Star, which analyzed state data.

The problem is caused by former farmland that has slowly returned to desert, but with little in the way of shrubs or grass to catch blowing dirt.

A sudden gust can stir up a dust cloud that completely obscures vehicles without warning, said Capt. Brian Preston, who runs the Casa Grande office of the Arizona Department of Public Safety and has been stationed in the area since 2011.

On Saturday, forecasters with the National Weather Service warned that parts of southern Arizona could expect strong and gusty winds.

Many drivers plow through a dust storm without taking even basic precautions, Preston said. A video he shot in 2011 along Interstate 8 near Casa Grande shows cars and trucks failing to even step on their brakes for him while his lights are on.

Steve Christy began pushing the Arizona Department of Transportation to address dust-related crashes shortly after he was appointed to the State Transportation Board in 2009.

He said after the Oct. 29 crash that ADOT was working on its warning systems and education but "reached a dead end" when it came to the condition of the land along the interstate, which is a mix of public and private property.

"In my estimation, ADOT has gone as far as it can jurisdictionally and legislatively to address the problem," Christy said.

ADOT will place several cameras along I-10 in the coming months, including a set of cameras near the particularly dusty milepost 214, said Rob Samour, senior operations engineer.

The cameras will monitor live traffic, but Samour hopes the resolution will be good enough to spot dust storms along the busy stretch of Interstate 10.

The department also is coordinating with the National Weather Service to put out portable signs warning drivers of possible dust storms during windy days.

Samour said another option is to have DPS slow traffic along the Interstate.

A comprehensive analysis of Arizona's entire length of I-10 between the California and New Mexico borders shows a 10-mile area near Picacho Peak is the deadliest. A decade's worth of data show 37 crashes between 2001 and 2010.

That's a tiny percentage of crashes on state and federal highways in Arizona. But because dust storms come on suddenly, they're difficult to forecast. And because the storms block visibility on a fast-moving roadway, they are deadly and disruptive, involving large numbers of vehicles and impeding travel for hours.

Much of the land in the dusty corridor was abandoned decades ago by farmers who lacked water rights to irrigate it, said Rick Gibson, head of agricultural extension for Pinal County.

"That whole area, from Picacho Peak west to Casa Grande, particularly around Eloy, Toltec and Arizona City, that is the prehistoric and historic terminus of the Santa Cruz River."

Farley, the state senator, doesn't know if the answer is to revegetate land or to build physical barriers, but he said he's certain something can be done.

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Information from: Arizona Daily Star, http://www.azstarnet.com

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