County road crews put in long hours to clear snow

While the rest of South Whidbey was saying goodbye to summer, public works supervisors in Island County were preparing for whatever winter would throw their way.

Good thing, because after 14 straight days of snow and ice, the county’s ability to respond has been tested to the limit.

“Each September, we get together with public utilities, the sheriff, emergency response folks and the I-COM 911 dispatch staff,” said Randy Brackett, assistant director of the county public works department. “We run a set of management table-top exercises to make sure we have good communications in case of the real thing.

“And we certainly got the real thing this year.”

Managers monitor every source they can find to keep abreast of changing weather conditions.

Brackett said his boss, Bill Oakes, is an avid windsurfer who maintains a private weather station that comes in handy when predicting the weather.

“We have a forecast discussion while we look at different weather models,” Brackett said. “We need a well-rounded idea of what to expect as a storm event unfolds, and then crews are scheduled and we can see if the right machinery and stockpiles of sand and salt are in the right place.”

For all the resources, Brackett admitted the forecasts didn’t always jibe with the actual snowfall the last two weeks.

“Some of the data we got showed either less snow coming or warmer temperatures that would melt the ice and a lot of it was just plain wrong,” he said.

There are five road crew shops with

12 people on duty in the county, including Bayview and one in Coupeville that is responsible for county roads as far south as Classic Road.

Each shop has a number of sanding trucks that carry five yards of sand and a couple smaller half-ton trucks with plows.

Crews have worked 24 hours a day on primary side streets and commuter routes plus key intersections.

“Higher volume routes get priority,” Brackett noted.

He said the bigger plows and trucks cover more territory faster, but crews have to use the smaller half-ton sanders for steep, isolated spots.

“We do neighborhood streets when we can and respond quickly to medical situations or when there’s an accident and first responders need access,” he added.

The snow plows operate at 25 mph so the snow is thrown far enough off the road to avoid creating a dangerous snowpack, but low enough to avoid mailboxes.

At least in theory, as some residents have discovered.

“We apologize for that,” Brackett said. “We do the best we can not to damage mailboxes, but there have been some phone calls. We don’t have the resources or manpower to protect all of them.”

At the county’s road shop in Bayview, dump-truck driver Chris Currier was getting ready to go home for the day. He’s been working since a week ago Sunday trying to keep county roads sanded; the state handles Highway 525.

“We start about 4 a.m. and work to

7 p.m., but sometimes we get called out for an accident,” he said.

Currier and the other road crew have racked up 30 or more hours in overtime so far. The county uses three dump trucks and two sanders with plows on the South End.

“On Monday, if the snow is still out there, we’ll be concentrating on commuter routes like Cultus Bay, Langley, Maxwelton and Deer Lake so folks can get to work or make it to the ferry,” he said.

Currier, 37, a 1991 graduate of South Whidbey High School, said he hasn’t seen prolonged cold like this since he was in school.

“Yeah, it’s bad but most people seem to be either staying home or driving carefully,” he said. “They’re coping.”

The county runs an emergency operations center in Coupeville to monitor and dispatch crews where they’re needed most.

“No one really has much experience at this, but we’re doing all we can,” Currier said. “County supervisors and managers have been riding along at night for help when we need to back up in the dark. They also keep an accurate record on which roads have been sanded and when, in case there’s a wreck.”

Brackett said his office plans to put together a collage of snow photos for each shop, signed by the county commissioners.

“Those guys on the front line are the keys to the whole operation, and we appreciate their efforts,” he said.

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at

221-5300 or jvanderford@southwhidbey

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