A relatively placid winter suddenly gets busy for local road crews
By Pat Caldwell
A relatively quiet winter season came to a screeching halt last week when a series of storms careened off the Pacific Ocean and rode roughshod over much of Oregon, and the inclement weather will probably linger through the coming weekend.
"It's just a series of days in a row. We are still in winter," Bob Diaz, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service forecasting office in Boise, said Friday.
Even the normally temperate Willamette Valley was bombarbed with a trio of snow and ice storms, the first on Thursday.
Two more major systems - one for tonight and into Tuesday and another slated to hit close to the weekend - will rotate over the state before the weather begins to moderate.
Temperatures will be warmer, though, and Baker Valley could get more rain than snow this week.
Heavy snow is forecast for the mountains.
"We do have a pattern shift then things will moderate. Snow will turn to rain. The next couple (of storms) will be a lot warmer," Diaz said.
While the February winter onslaught delivered disorder in the milder climate of the Willamette Valley, Diaz said big storms this time of year are not uncommon in Eastern Oregon.
"It's fairly typical to see weather systems to roll in February," he said.
Yet Diaz said the storms this week may very well mark the last, best chance for winter to distribute mayhem over a wide area.
"You could probably consider it the last part of winter," he said.
ODOT was ready
Heavy snowfall and severe weather are not an unusual element to Eastern Oregon and the Oregon Department of Transportation carefully prepares for winter weather every year, Tom Strandberg, ODOT's Region 5 public information officer said.
Strandberg said Region 5 - based in La Grande - deploys about 50 maintenance crew members. Those crews, he said, work four, 10-hour days in four shifts.
"They are 24-7, available to plow snow. Once they come to work they are in the plows," he said.
Strandberg said ODOT crews focus primarily on the interstate when battling inclement weather, but other secondary state highways also are plowed.
Strandberg said that when the interstate is closed, often it is not because of weather directly, but because of the effect it has on drivers.
"Typically what closes a road is a crash. A semi jackknifes. Not because the conditions are so bad," he said.
The call to either keep the interstate open or close it is made by the plow drivers Strandberg said.
"If they know it will be too hazardous they will make the call and close it down," he said.
Eastern Oregon boasts two major passes - Cabbage Hill and Ladd Canyon - where the combination of bad weather and poor road conditions often combine to create chaos.
"Ladd Canyon is kind of a unique area," Strandberg said, with its steep grades and frequent strong winds.
While Strandberg said the ODOT snow plow drivers are usually able to keep the roads open there are some conditions - such as blowing snow - that produces especially difficult problems.
"When it gets to blowing snow there is nothing we can do about it," he said.
Closer to home, Baker City Manager Mike Kee said the city puts its focused on main transportation arteries when a winter squall delivers a lot of snow.
"We have a snow plan. We go out and hit the major intersections, bus routes. There is a method. They just don't go out willy nilly," he said.
Kee said one of the last items on the snow plow priority list are residential areas.
"They are the last to be plowed. In terms of transportation in Baker City it (residential areas) are the least important. We concentrate on commerce, emergency services. Our goal is to keep the streets safe and be as economical as possible," he said.
Strandberg said during the winter months that area residents should be cautious while on the roads.
"We ask people to pay attention. We ask people to be in winter mode when they get behind the wheel," he said.
City crews plan to plow all streets
Baker City crews worked all night Saturday and Sunday to haul snow from the berms piled in the middle of several streets.
That will continue, but crews also will turn their attention to residential streets that haven't been plowed, said Tom Fisk of the city's public works department.
With warmer temperatures and rain forecast, those unplowed streets will turn into morasses of slush. "People are going to get stuck" if the streets aren't plowed, Fisk said.
He encourages residents to avoid if possible parking at the curb on streets that haven't been plowed. This allows crews to plow all the way to the curb, and avoids drivers having their cars "plowed in" by a snow berm.