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Following Heat Deaths, Phoenix Installs Fans at Echo Canyon Trailhead

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In the wake of several heat-related deaths on city mountain-park trails, Phoenix officials have installed two electric fans on an outdoor shade structure at Echo Canyon trailhead.

Installation was completed on Wednesday at the Camelback Mountain trailhead, and the pair of 18-inch fans – one on each side of the metal awning – were whirring away this morning for the benefit of hikers and rangers.

Looking like slightly beefier versions of the same sort of common fans seen on display in many retail stores this time of year, these non-oscillating fans can't compete with even a mild breeze outdoors. But on scorching summer days on Camelback, sometimes there's nary a breeze to be felt. Hikers began flocking immediately to the fans this morning, says park ranger Mark Sirota.

“They apparently love it,” he said.

Park ranger supervisor Lynn Swan, who was at the city's second-busiest hiking area this morning to inspect the fans, said city officials were also considering whether to install water-misting devices to help visitors keep cool at Echo Canyon.

"Misters is one of the options that we were looking at," she said.

There are no current plans to cool the most popular summit for hikers, Piestewa Peak, she added.

Gregg Bach, parks spokesman, said there are no plans to install misters at this time. Nor should hikers expect to see upgrades such as outdoor swamp coolers or A/C units.

Last week, the City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation board considered a motion to close mountain-park trails when temperatures rose above 110 degrees. The board voted unanimously to ditch the idea after outraged hikers questioned the reasoning behind the proposed rule. But recent tragedies are fresh in the minds of park managers and community members, creating an incentive to try new solutions.

After the heat-related death of British visitor Ravinder Takhar on the Echo Canyon trail became an international news story last year, the city ramped up its "Take a Hike, Do It Right" campaign, adding signage at city parks to remind hikers to take plenty of water, wear appropriate clothing, and know their own limits. Another British hiker, 56-year-old Stephen Vanderhoeven, fell and died on the trail this past month while looking for chuckwallas. A week after Vanderhoeven's death, which may have been heat-related, Arizona's killer temperatures again became national news when three hikers — two in Tucson and one in Phoenix — and a mountain biker died on trails in record-breaking, late-spring heat.

On Thursday morning, as the temperature was rising into the high 90s, a very sweaty and flushed Ralph Steel sat on a bench near one of the new fans. Asked if he liked the breeze, he gushed, "Yeah, I do, actually – it's amazing!"

He and his wife, Kirsi, both originally from Germany, had just hiked to the summit. A former Valley resident, she'd conquered the mountain previously, but it was her husband's first time up.

"There were a few 'Bloody hells!' but it was exhilarating,” Ralph Steel said of the trail, which is only three miles round-trip but rated as difficult. As a sign at the park says, the rugged hike to the 2,704-foot peak is like climbing to the top of the Empire State Building.

And now, when hikers complete their outdoor workout in 110-degree temps, they can stand in front of a taxpayer-funded fan to cool off.

Swan said that while putting up fans seems like a simple idea, it wasn't feasible until a $4 million trailhead renovation completed in 2014 added a nearby electricity source. 

The fans are intended primarily for park rangers and city staff who work at the trailhead, Bach said.

“Staff also will be using portable fans at other trailheads that have electricity,” Bach said.

Echo Canyon isn't the first trailhead to have permanently installed fans. When the new Desert Hills trailhead at Seventh Avenue and Carefree Highway opened in May, it came with a large fan built into the wall of a ramada, Bach said.

Note: This story previously, and accidentally, omitted Bach's comment that misters aren't going to be installed at this time. 

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