An early December snowstorm in 2013 blanketed the Rogue Valley for an entire weekend, from the reaches of the Siskiyou and Sexton passes down to the valley floor. The recipe for that snowy cocktail was a moisture-rich Arctic front and a stagnant cold-air mass; those two elements caused a week-long headache for motorists and emergency service providers as snow melt turned into ice.
On the first day alone, more than 100 vehicle crashes were reported on state highways in the Rogue Valley.
“The whole weekend was a mess,” said ODOT District Manager Jerry Marmon. “The temperatures dropped, so whatever snow melted during the day quickly turned into ice, making the roads a challenge.”
Jackson County Roads and Parks Director John Vial hosted a “Winter Weather Coordination Meeting” prior to the Thanksgiving weekend, which is commonly recognized as the start of the winter response season. The coordination meeting included representatives from local cities, fire departments, Oregon State Police, Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, Emergency Communications of Southern Oregon and ODOT.
“We’ve hosted coordination meetings like this for the Siskiyou Pass but this was the first one focused more on the valley floor,” said Marmon. “Because each road crew has limited winter resources, Jackson County’s meeting was a good opportunity to synchronize our efforts and provide better service.”
ODOT maintenance crews use many different tools and practices, including plowing, chemicals, salt, and sanding materials, to stay ahead of the winter weather. The crews transition schedules to provide 24-hour coverage during the winter to keep employees fresh and ready to respond to any storm, day or night.
“Our crews really gear up for winter,” said Marmon. “When a snowstorm hits, it’s an all-hands-on-deck event.”
The Siskiyou Pass presents a unique challenge. When a storm hits Southern Oregon, the highest priority is the ten-mile stretch of Siskiyou Pass on I-5 due to its importance as a regional freight route and its high traffic volumes.
The Siskiyou Pass is Oregon’s only mountain pass where all-weather or studded tires cannot be substituted for chains.
“Because of the grades, the traffic and the experience of drivers on Siskiyou Pass, we go to a higher standard of traction devices,” Marmon said. “When we say chains are required on the Siskiyous, every vehicle has to chain up except vehicles equipped with four-wheel drive.”
Ill-equipped for winter
Storm-related delays and short-term closures on the Siskiyou Pass are a common occurrence. However, motorists are often caught ill-equipped for traveling over the I-5 mountain pass.
“One of the biggest errors we see is people unprepared for winter conditions and a long wait in their car,” said Marmon. “We’ve seen people in shorts and tennis shoes. They have no gloves and no flashlight, but they’re bent over in the snow trying to chain up.”