You would expect that when the heat is on, cooler heads would prevail.
That didn’t quite happen with the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Board, whose decision this week to begin closing popular hiking trails on Camelback Mountain and Piestewa Peak during periods of high heat appeared knee-jerk and misplaced.
Distressed hikers might have been top of mind, although you can argue that Phoenix firefighters and paramedics who come to their rescue may have been more so. Regardless, no one’s best interests were served, really.
The board’s decision followed a request for trail restrictions from a firefighters union, citing three back-to-back mountain rescues on a recent day when temperatures hit 116 degrees. The calls resulted in two firefighters requiring hospitalization for acute renal failure from dehydration and exhaustion.
Twelve firefighters were also sent home for heat-related effects, the union said in a letter to the board.
Firefighter concerns were thrown on the parks board
The incidents begged for greater examination of what happened and ways to better protect rescue crews. What measures were taken to hydrate and rest the crews after each incident? Why were they dispatched on all three calls? Could another fire station have responded?
Was this an outlier situation or representative of a trend?
However that examination was to play out, the responsibility rested with the Phoenix Fire Department and its brass. Working conditions and safety protocol are the bailiwick of the employer, after all.
Instead, the burden was misplaced on the parks and recreations board.
A presentation was sprung on board members to press the case for restrictions. But the evidence was lacking.
An accompanying report included the number of rescue calls Phoenix Fire responded to from 2018 to 2020 at Piestewa Peak and Camelback Mountain, which are said to account for more than half of the rescues occurring in the city’s trail system. The report conflated the calls for service with the number of days when temperatures hit 105 degrees and above and the dangers heat poses.
The conflation was misleading at best.
Most rescue calls come during cooler weather
There’s nothing to support the implied narrative that heat is the concerning culprit, or that shutting off access to the trails when the weather is hot would reduce the number of rescue calls.
About half of the calls in any of the given years occurred before May 1 and after Nov. 1 when the weather was considerably milder.
The calls this year, which weren’t part of the presentation, are no different: 42% of the 74 calls to date happened before May 1. And 82% came on days when the high was less than 105 degrees.
There are no breakouts on the data regarding heat-related injuries or symptoms – dehydration, dizziness, cramps.
Yet the board was urged to adopt a pilot program that would close the trails when the weather heats up past a seemingly arbitrary threshold (essentially a forecast that the heat index, which combines air temperature and the dew point, will hit 105 degrees or higher).
A program that shuts off access to thousands of hikers, who log some 600,000 trips at the Camelback and Piestewa trails each year.
We’ve seen this movie before.
There’s a reason a 2016 effort went nowhere
In 2016, there was a similar clamor for the Parks and Recreation Board to close Phoenix’s hiking trails during extreme heat – back then, the threshold contemplated was 110 degrees. (Other camps called for a “stupid hiker’s law,” akin to Arizona’s stupid motorist law, that would stick the tab on hikers requiring rescue.)
The data didn’t support the sought-after actions then either.
Leading up to the June board meeting that year, three-quarters of the logged rescue calls came before June 1, when there were just three days when temperatures topped 100 degrees. And of the calls that followed June 1, all but two came before 10:30 a.m. or after 8 p.m. – long before or after the peak of the heat.
Except that five years ago, the parks and recreation board took up the debate in a regularly scheduled meeting, in which there was plenty of public input – and pushback. The board formed a task force that considered a range of options but enacted nothing drastic.
Board should rethink this la
This week, the board heard the matter on a special meeting basis that appeared rushed. It didn’t sufficiently establish why a heat index of 105 degrees is the best trigger for closure.
It didn’t weigh other options. Not staffing the Piestewa Peak and Camelback Mountains with more park rangers. Not contemplating water stations or medical tents. Not stepping up education efforts with out-of-town visitors at resorts and hotels who go hiking with little readiness.
It didn’t question the scant data or the adverse effect that restrictions would have on hikers.
Instead, a majority of board members, feeling the political heat, closed off options, closed their minds then chose an arbitrary setting for closing the trails. It would be wise for them to reconsider the decision.
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