Towns, plow operators tackle massive snowfall
While most of us were sleeping or having our morning coffee, city, county and private snowplow operators had been out for hours tunneling through more than 2 feet of snow on Friday morning (Jan. 7), leaving massive abstract sculptures in their wake.
“It’s going slow,” said Lori Rodio, administrative assistant for Twisp Public Works – and snowblower operator – as she navigated her tractor/snowblower to clear sidewalks on Friday morning. “The problem is, the snow is deeper than the blade,” she said.
Rodio has been driving the tractor for almost two decades, blowing snow in winter and mowing grass in summer. She tagged along when town staff went to pick out the tractor to be sure it included a heater and a cup holder, she said.
“It’s funner when you can do it in normal hours,” Rodio said, but, with a big storm, she and other Public Works employees head out in the wee hours to clear roads before the general population needs to go to work or school.
Twisp town policy requires the crew to start plowing at midnight if there’s at least 3 inches of snow by 11 p.m., Twisp Public Works Director Andrew Denham said. Denham was in the shop Monday afternoon repairing plows and trucks that had been taxed by days of moving snow. The town also attached a new snowblower before Rodio started her route on Friday.
This week’s snowfall – the second overnight shift in a week for Twisp plow drivers – was tricky, because there were 5 inches of snow at midnight, but 26 inches by morning, Denham said.
Beyond that, Public Works still has to keep up with the town’s wastewater-treatment plant and water system, Denham said. “It’s all hands on deck when we have a snowstorm like that,” he said.
Winthrop Public Works cleans up berms and parking spaces with a front loader after the state Department of Transportation plows Hwy 20 within town limits, Winthrop Mayor Sally Ranzau said. Town crews work overnight to plow and sand hills so that streets are in good shape in the morning, she said.
Twisp has three plows and plow routes with three drivers, plus a loader route. Even in the extra-long shifts they work after a big dump, there’s only enough time for each driver to do his route once. If it snows more after they’ve made their first pass, they come back the next day to plow any new accumulation, Denham said.
Many towns don’t scoop up and move snow, but Twisp has storage lots throughout town, Denham said. With those lots more than three-quarters full, the staff will be relocating the piles to the Twisp Park, he said. Winthrop also has places to store snow.
Okanogan County snowplow operators at the Methow shop came into work an hour early – their shift normally starts at 6 a.m. – on Friday morning to get started clearing snow, navigating unplowed roads, Okanogan County Engineer Josh Thomson said.
After plowing the main arterials and secondary roads on Thursday and Friday, crews had to clear several slides and deep snowdrifts, Thomson said.
Most of the major issues had been addressed by Monday morning. County policy requires 4 inches of snow before they can call someone in for overtime or on the weekend, Thomson said.
Some roads are regularly beset by snowslides. Two narrow spots carved into the side of the cliff on Burma Road near Methow always slide, but the extra-heavy snowfall also caused a slide on Benson Creek Road, which was cleared on Saturday. A few cars got stuck in deep drifts deposited by strong winds on Gunn Ranch Road on Friday.
Snow that slides is generally denser and requires a front loader or grader for removal. Plowing around trapped cars can complicate their job, Thomson said.
Steep hillsides on Elbow Coulee Road and Frost Roads, off of Twisp River, also slid, blocking the roadways. Because they’re not essential routes and Public Works wants to be sure employees and the public don’t get trapped, those roads are closed and will be reevaluated this week, Thomson said.
There are six plow routes in the Methow, but the county is currently looking to fill two positions. A temporary employee is covering one route, and the supervisor is driving a grader on the Mazama route before starting his supervisory tasks, Thomson said.
Rowan Peterson, who does trail work and landscaping in the warmer seasons, was looking for a good winter occupation. “Suddenly, the snow fell,” he said, and he’s been shoveling roofs ever since. “It’s been hard to keep up with. There’s so much need right now,” Peterson said.
Peterson needs to size up a roof to figure out the best – and safest – way to approach it. Peterson wears snow boots with attached traction devices, but on steep roofs he adds a tie-off and climbing harness.
He has an arsenal of tools – a long-handled scoop shovel, a roof rake, and a large utility sled that he can fill with snow and dump over the edge – but other equipment, like sled shovels that let you push the snow without lifting it, are sold out, and deliveries are delayed.
Toby Pennock of Pennock Excavation was in the shop on Monday fixing wheel bearings and axle seals to get ready for the next snowstorm.
Pennock operates four plows on routes from Mazama through Carlton, plus two blowers in Lost River. “We have no schedule. We just go until we’re done,” he said. The past week, he and his plow crew have been working 15- to 18-hour shifts.
In a typical storm, snowplow operators tend to wait until it stops snowing, but his time, they were plowing while it was still coming down, Pennock said. “It’s pretty much nonstop. We always have rigs going. People have to get out of their driveway,” he said.
“The only thing to gripe about is the fuel bill,” he said, since diesel currently costs $3,000 a month.
People were well prepared for this storm and have been very patient, Pennock said. “My phone didn’t blow up saying, ‘Where are you? I’ve got doctor’s appointments. I’ve got to fly,’” he said.
Twisp Public Works reminds people not to park or leave trash cans on the streets overnight – and to be patient – and most are, Denham said. “The community is well aware of what it takes. They’re very appreciative. We get emails, phone calls, cookies and cards,” he said.