Monday, Dec. 7, 1998 | 11:01 a.m.
Sunday morning there was something in Las Vegas more amazing than pirate battles, volcanos and dancing fountains.
For a few hours the neon and glitz of the Strip were temporarily covered by a blanket of snow that lingered on palm trees and cactus across the valley.
Keri Justice, a native of Tampa Bay, Fla., where the white stuff is even more rare than it is in Las Vegas, strolled through the inch of snow on the boardwalk of the Treasure Island hotel-casino Sunday morning.
"I like the way it looks on the palm trees," she said.
Some tourists looked a bit surprised to see snow in the desert, as if wondering whether it was really snow or some new ploy to get them back into the casinos.
"We expect snow back home, but we thought it would be 70 degrees here," Cathy Hopkins, who is on vacation from Illinois with her husband, said.
The snow started falling about 7:15 a.m., dropping an inch over most of the valley and as much as 2 inches in parts of North Las Vegas and Henderson, according to the National Weather Service.
Although it was almost all gone by about 10:30 a.m., it provided a strange backdrop for many Southern Nevadans as they peered out their windows Sunday.
Nevada Highway Patrol spokesman Scott Flabi said there were 45 accidents Sunday during a period when the normal is five.
"U.S. 95 was horrendous," Flabi said.
For a brief period the highway had to be closed between Eastern Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard because of so many minor accidents, according to Flabi.
None of the weather-related accidents was fatal.
McCarran International Airport was closed for 20 minutes because of blowing snow, but only one flight was affected, spokeswoman Cynthia Anderson said.
The last time the valley saw as much as an inch of snow was on Feb. 26, 1996, when the northwest part of town reported 2 inches, weather service spokesman Paul Skrbac said.
"It's not as uncommon as people think," Skrbac said. "We usually get some traces of snow every winter. This is probably the third time in the last eight years that we've had as much as an inch."
In 1990 an inch and a half of snow was reported, but to find a really large amount of snow in the valley one must go all the way back to 1979 when 7.8 inches came down. In 1974, 9 inches of powder was reported, Skrbac said.
While most were surprised at the snow, at least one man thought it was a good time for flakes to come down.
"It's hard to have the Christmas spirit with it being 75 degrees out," Eddie Hofland, who runs the Evergreen Christmas tree lot near the corner of Charleston and Decatur boulevards, said. "For it to be Christmas you need a little snow."
The 81-year-old from Oregon, who has brought trees to Las Vegas for Christmas for the last seven years, was having a cup of coffee and a cigarette in his truck next to his tree lot when the storm hit.
"It just started falling all of a sudden," Hofland said. "It was coming in flat. I haven't seen anything like it since I was growing up in Montana."
Phoenix got its first snowfall in four years Sunday.
"It looks kind of strange because you're not used to seeing snowflakes out of your window no matter how cold it gets," Gerri Cosney of Cave Creek, a suburb of Phoenix, said.
The snow in Phoenix quickly changed to rain but Sunday's high temperature was only 48, a record for the date and 19 degrees below normal.
The National Weather Service said the last snow recorded in the Phoenix area was a trace on Feb. 4, 1994, and the last measurable snow was Dec. 21-22, 1990, when 0.4 inch fell.
At the higher elevations of northern Arizona, up to 5 inches of snow fell near Flagstaff, Kingman and Prescott.
A 30-mile stretch of steep Interstate 17 between Flagstaff and the Sedona turnoff was closed for about four hours.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety said dozens of cars slid off the road but there were no serious accidents.