On a morning with 4 inches of fresh snow on the ground and more coming, Bret Witty swings up into his big orange ODOT snowplow with its 432 horsepower Cummins diesel grumbling under the hood, and sets out to clear Hwy 82 from Enterprise to Minam and back. The trip will take a little more than an hour, with the plow moving at speeds of 35 to 40 mph, its right-side wing and front plow clearing a 14-foot swath of road.
February snowfall just seems to keep coming, although as of Saturday, the snowpack at Aneroid had dropped to 79 percent of the 30-year average, while Mount Howard held 91 percent. The job of keeping roads passable and safe falls mostly to the Oregon Department of Transportation, which clears Oregon Highway 82, the North Highway (OR 3) and the Imnaha Highway. (OR 350) and to Wallowa County Road Department plows and graders that clear the other 700 miles or so. ODOT has eight drivers who sometimes work 12-hour shifts, day and night, behind the wheel of the three ODOT plows. The County has 12 drivers on the snow-plowing crew. Generally plows run during daylight with a total of three truck plows and seven graders. Two of the County’s trucks and four graders handle the Wallowa Valley, with graders stations near Zumwalt, Crow Creek, Promise, and Powatka. One truck and a grader are stationed at Troy, with the remaining graders at Imnaha and Flora .
Wallowa County’s budget for plowing is in good shape, according to Lon Andrade, who heads the road department. Limited snowfall early in the season meant that funds are available to keep roads clear now, when the snow has finally hit.
Witty has been working for the Oregon Department of Transportation and driving the snow plow on state highways for more than 30 years. It’s in his genes. His father worked and plowed for the Wallowa County Road Department for 32 years. His grandfather spent 30 years with ODOT. Bret Witty has an innate feel for where the front and wing plows are and the conditions of the road.
“I need to get more sand on some stretches along the Wallowa River,” he said. “There’s more tightly-packed snow there than there is here (between Enterprise and Lostine.)”
Witty’s 15-year old yellow-orange ODOT truck, with 343,000 miles on it, carries about eight to 10 cubic yards of sand. On every curve Witty pushes a lever in his cab that controls the sand-spreader at the rear of the truck. “We put sand on curves, hills and bridges,” he said. “ I can control when and how the sand gets distributed.”
On his westbound run from Enterprise to Minam, Witty generally uses his entire truckload of sand. Before he can return and clear the eastbound lane of Highway 82, he often has to climb up the Minam grade, drive through Elgin to the Tollgate Highway, and refill with sand at the state’s Elgin station. Not every ODOT plow is as generous with sand as Witty, though.
A different truck will apply magnesium chloride as temperatures begin to fall later in the day to help melt snow and ice on the same curves, hills, and bridges. Temperatures on the road surface have to be above 20 degrees for the chemical to work, Witty noted. “Below 20 degrees it just turns into a mucky, chunky sort-or gooey solid,” he said. ODOT trucks have a dual thermometer that monitors the temps of both the air and the road surface, so drivers know when and where it’s OK to apply the ice-melting potion.
The most serious hazards for snowplows are solid objects, Witty said. “Sometimes when snow is deep and wind is blowing, we can hit railroad tracks with the front plow. Sometimes the wing can hit a guardrail.” On Christmas Eve, one of Wallowa County’s plows hit the railroad tracks on Sunrise Road. The impact hurled the big truck across the road, broke a phone pole, and put the plow out of commission for the remainder of that storm.
Drivers tailgating behind a plow also present a hazard to plow drivers. They are invisible to the plow, may receive an unwelcome dose of sand and gravel, and sometimes lose patience, trying to pass in unsafe conditions. “When there are cars behind me I try to pull over,” Witty said, “but there’s not many places to do that.” Most plow operators can tell stories of cars that have passed them, only to end up off the road or in a snow bank. “When I can. I’ll pull them out,” said ODOT driver Monte Radford. “God gave everybody a brain to use, not just for a hat rack.” With authorization, ODOT plow drivers can push, drag, and sometime pull cars out of danger or back onto the roadway. ODOT Trucks with sanders usually lack the capacity to tow vehicles back onto the road, Radford said.
“People don’t realize the safest place is behind the sander,” Radford said. “The most dangerous place is right here in the truck. We are always driving on the slickest part of the road.”
Plows may be the first on the scene of accidents, and usually are summoned as part of the rescue effort. “One of the worst snowy-road accidents I’ve found,” Radford said, “was on Buford grade.” (The winding part of Highway 3 that drops into the Grande Ronde Canyon) “The snow can get really deep there. There was one big truck—a 53-foot trailer — that was lost—he was using GPS to find the road to Walla Walla,” Radford said. “ He slid off the road and into another truck operated by Farm Supply. They both blocked the road for hours.”
For Wallowa County, clearing Hurricane Creek Road and keeping school bus routes open are the highest priorities on the 700 miles of roads they manage. But with just two plows, two graders, and eight drivers, that can be a challenge.
Blackbirds are singing overly–optimistic spring songs as Ron Jensen chains up his 2015 Freightliner while its 430 Detroit Diesel idles in the county yard. This truck has a moveable, “reversible” plow that Jensen uses to advantage to avoid hitting mailboxes or blocking driveways by shifting the angle of the plow just a little when passing those obstacles. Clearing the roads on Alder Slope and Sunrise for the school bus route is first priority. It’s 7 a.m., and the first bus is due on Alder Slope around 7:30.
With limited equipment, drivers, and budgets, the County tries to be as efficient as possible when clearing roads. “We do all right-hand turns,” Jensen said. “We want to keep going, not dead-head and have to turn around a lot. We get one lane cleared and it might be a couple of hours before we come back the other way but at the end of the day we get more road plowed that way.” The County’s strategy is to get the road opened up on the first day, and then return the next day to widen the area plowed. County rigs operate almost exclusively in daylight hours, partly because they lack the powerful lights on ODOT trucks, and partly because there are fewer drivers. “There are lots of times when I spend all day plowing snow,” Jensen said.
Even with a relatively new rig (Jensen’s plow has only about 37,000 miles on it), there are many days when plowing snow is a challenge. “Blowing snow and drifts cover the windshield a lot,” Jensen said. “The windshield gets iced up and it’s really hard to see where you are going. Then you turn the defroster up and you get really warm and your eyes dry out and so you roll down the window and then snow blows into the cab.”
But hazards or not, Jensen figures he pulls about a half-dozen cars back onto the road every winter.
Unlike ODOT, Wallowa County’s plows don’t have a sander on the back. Instead, there’s a separate big sander and also a one-ton truck with a sand-spreader that are deployed to treat curves, hills and bridges.
The County’s graders are stationed at Flora and on Sheep Hill, and also used to plow roads in the Leap area. Flora and Leap roads are notorious for drifts, and the grader handles deep, packed snows better than the plows, Jensen noted. The Flora grader plows not only the roads on the flat, but also the Redmond Grade. Graders also are better for gravel roads, but snowfall and workload don’t always allow that to happen.
The County grader on Sheep Hill is essential to keep Oregon Highway 350 to Imnaha open. “We do a lot of horse trading with ODOT to keep costs down,” Jensen said. “We’ll plow Sheep Hill and other places with our grader when it’s drifted in; we let them use our trucks and belly dump when they need them, and we trade for sand as well.”
No matter how much they may like driving, plow drivers are unanimous on one thing: They are tired, really tired, of plowing snow.
“Snow plowing is a job you sort of don’t get no recognition for, said ODOT driver Monte Radford, “cause it finally melts and then there’s no proof that you did anything…. I’ve really had it with winter.”