PHOENIX — Parts of Arizona's main north-south thoroughfare were shut down Wednesday, stranding motorists hundreds of miles south of Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon as a storm dumped snow on higher elevations and rare rainfall in the low desert.
"As far as I can see, it's tail lights," said Abel Gurrola, who was headed north on Interstate 17 with his wife and three sons. The Gilbert family was en route to Flagstaff, but said they had been stuck just south of Camp Verde for about four hours and counting.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety received more than 100 calls reporting slide-offs in a three-hour period, including semi trucks, spokesman Bart Graves said.
I-17, which runs from the metropolitan Phoenix area to Flagstaff and is a popular route to the Grand Canyon, was closed going north near the turnoff for Sedona, and going south near Flagstaff. Drivers reported being stuck waiting for upward of three hours.
Graves said the public safety department was working to help a nine-months pregnant woman out of the traffic. He said she wasn't going into labor but wasn't feeling well.
"To put it mildly, we're slammed," Graves said, who added that the interstate was "flat-out dangerous with icy conditions."
State Route 87 was re-opened after a multi-vehicle collision and a 15-car backup just south of Payson that blocked both the north and southbound lanes, Graves said. No serious injuries were reported.
Snow fell at the Grand Canyon, as well as in Flagstaff, Prescott and other parts of northern Arizona. Visibility was down to a half-mile at the popular national park and down to a quarter-mile in Flagstaff, National Weather Service meteorologist Chris Breckenridge said.
Snow accumulations of up to 2 feet were expected in areas with elevations above 6,500 feet; up to a foot of snow could fall at elevations between 5,000 and 6,500 feet.
The Coconino County Sheriff's Office warned backcountry skiers and others to be alert for avalanches on the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff. Spokesman Gerry Blair said no avalanche patrols are conducted on the backside of the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort.
Meanwhile, rain soaked the Phoenix area and much of south-central Arizona, while temperatures were expected to be as much as 15 degrees below normal. Breckenridge said low temperatures in Phoenix were expected to dip to 29 degrees Friday morning.
Phoenix hasn't seen such temperatures since January 2007 and rarely gets this cold, he added.
A blizzard warning was issued in parts of eastern and southeastern Arizona, including the White Mountains, the Galiuro and Pinaleno Mountains, Catalina and Rincon Mountains, and Mount Graham.
Breckenridge said the combination of high winds and snow caused by blizzards "leads to whiteout conditions, and that's very dangerous." State police urged Arizonans to avoid driving, but if they must, drivers should pack an emergency kit with clothing, food, and blankets.
Gurrola said his family wanted to go to Flagstaff so that the boys — ages 7,9 and 11 — could play in the snow.
"The kids are getting a little squirmy, so we're trying to keep them busy as much as we can," he said as the family continued to wait. "We're having them do their multiplication tables, and we've got 'Nacho Libre' playing."