Sun breaks and temperatures into the low sixties are forecast for Columbia County into next week, but winter conditions are not far off.
Weather forecasters are carefully watching computer models to see how severe the winter will be. There are strong signals that Columbia County could see snow and colder temperatures similar to last February’s snowstorm.
How soon Old Man Winter blows into the region is still questionable. Last February drivers and pedestrians were challenged by several inches of snow in St. Helens, Scappoose and across the county. The harsh weather also kept public works crews busy clearing roads. Those crews include the Oregon Department of Transportation maintenance team based at Clatskanie, which serves the entire county.
The Chronicle checked in with the ODOT Communications Representative Lou Torres to see what fall and winter conditions the agency is currently preparing for.
The Chronicle: Given the early models, what is the preliminary winter forecast and conditions that ODOT is preparing for?
Lou Torres: The National Weather Service through the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is indicating the possibility of a La Nina winter. This would typically mean that we can expect a wetter and somewhat colder winter.
The Chronicle: In Columbia County, what are the specific areas of concern when we have ice and snow events?
Torres: We tend to get a lot of freezing fog on US Highway 30 along the Columbia River each year, so consequently we use a lot of magnesium chloride de-icer all winter long. This can be tricky since we can go from 32 degrees and raining, to a clear off where temperatures can plummet to 28 degrees in an hour and the moisture on the highway will freeze.
Since we can’t apply de-icer in the rain because the rain dilutes or washes the de-icer off the highway, we can have a real bad time with ice. My crews will be running around trying to get de-icer down as quickly as possible in these scenarios. This happens frequently and we do get crashes at these times. When a forecast is for a few clear cold days in a row with no precipitation, we will pre-treat the road with de-icer and this will last for up to four days.
The higher elevation areas near Rainier are always problematic for snow, especially when trucks try to go up Rainier hill and get stuck, generally because they don’t chain up, and the highway will close frequently at this spot, especially westbound.
The Chronicle: What is the annual budget ODOT pencils in for the winter maintenance in Columbia County and specifically, what does that pay for?
Torres: The budget fluctuates between $200,000 to $500,000 per year depending on the severity of the winter. A worst case scenario involving big emergencies like flooding and landslides we can be in the millions, but those are generally reimbursable costs. The normal budget pays for employee wages involving a day and night shift with overtime as necessary; equipment costs such as dump trucks with snow plows and sanders or de-icer applicators, and materials like sand and de-icer. We don’t use salt in Columbia County. This budget covers winter maintenance for all state highways in Columbia County such as US Highway 30, OR Highway 47, and OR Highway 202 - about 250 lane miles.
The Chronicle: How many ODOT maintenance/road workers are provided during winter in Columbia County and what is the range of their work?
Torres: There are 12 employees at the Clatskanie maintenance shop. Clatskanie Maintenance is the crew that takes care of Columbia County highways located 2 miles east of the city of Clatskanie at the top of the hill. Those 12 employees breakdown like this:
- 1 Transportation Maintenance Manager (TMM)
- 1 Transportation Maintenance Coordinator (TMC: an assistant manager)
- 10 Transportation Maintenance Specialist 2s (TMS2s).
These employees monitor weather and watch for storms, lowering temperatures, high precipitation rates and take appropriate action. Actions include de-icer application, plowing snow, sanding curves, hills, and bridges; as well as cleaning drainage grates, keeping culver inlets and outlets open, responding to incidents like car crashes, animal strikes, rocks and mud and trees in the roadway.
The Chronicle: Is the ODOT winter maintenance a 24/7 operation? If so, why?
Torres: The work is scheduled to occur 20-hours a day, with the remaining four hours covered with overtime as needed: two 10-hour shifts each day, with the crew split six on day shift and four on nights. Supervisors generally work days. The coverage is designed so that the weekends are staffed so there is someone on seven days per week.
The Chronicle: What are the traffic challenges and the dangers ODOT crews encounter during the winter maintenance operations?
Torres: Drivers are always unpredictable and so crashes are a regular duty for the ODOT crews to respond to. Falling trees and rocks are a particularly tricky event to respond to especially in wind storms.
The Chronicle: What is ODOT's message to drivers about the winter conditions that they might encounter in Columbia County?
Torres: Don’t assume that a highway is de-iced. Even if it is, de-icer is not perfect and may be wearing off or unpredictable in its effectiveness. Always drive with care and for the conditions. Carry chains and know how to put them on. Please don’t leave your car in the highway. Many people struggle with driving in snow and this happens a lot.
The Chronicle: Feel free to add any other comments you might have.
Torres: Patience from the public would be greatly appreciated. My employees are out driving in conditions where we ask the public to stay home. In certain situations we struggle to keep up and do the best that we can do. All of the crew are local to the area and deeply care about the service that they supply to the citizens of Columbia County.
For road condition updates 24/7 visit TripCheck.com, or call 511.