Snowplow crews toil day and night to clear Issaquah streets

January 24, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Come winter, the nonstop struggle between man and Mother Nature unfolds in a teeth-rattling ride aboard city snowplows.

Kyle Patterson, a city snowplow driver, maneuvers through the Montreux neighborhood to remove snow from streets Tuesday afternoon. By Warren Kagarise

Snow, split into quarters from tire tracks, clung to the streets just before sunset Jan. 17 in Montreux, a tony neighborhood on Cougar Mountain named for a city in the Swiss Alps. In methodical maneuvers, city snowplow driver Kyle Patterson edged back and forth along cul-de-sac after cul-de-sac, pushing snow from the roadway to form dirt-flecked berms along the street.

In the process, snow cascades from the plow and light powder is compacted into something more akin to spackle.

Each large snowplow truck in the city fleet resembles a mustard-yellow box atop gargantuan tires, a Tonka toy for a giant. Empty, a large truck tips the scales at about 30,000 pounds. Loaded, full of sand and de-icing fluid, the total balloons to about 60,000 pounds.

(The city operates seven snowplow trucks, a larger model for main roads and a smaller model for difficult-to-maneuver side streets.)

The drivers, dressed in fluorescent jackets the same color as a highlighter pen, ride in the snowplow cabs beneath a flashing amber light. Most drivers use earplugs to block noise from the rumbling engine and brakes screeching like a pterodactyl.

The job requires a nimble hand on the steering wheel and the levers used to manipulate the plow — not to mention patience, precision and pluck — for the lumbering trucks remain susceptible to the same road hazards as other vehicles, despite the bulk and chains meant to ensure traction.

Sometimes, in difficult conditions, “these things still slide, even with all of that weight,” Patterson said.

If the forecast calls for snow, a choreographed sequence is set in motion to clear streets and stage equipment for other possible problems, such as downed trees.

Crews toil around the clock in 12-hour shifts to shove snow from the roadway and, if necessary, drop sand and de-icing fluid onto the roadway. (Drivers usually head home between shifts, but the Public Works Operations shop contains cots and a shower just in case.)

Patterson started at noon Jan. 17 and, not long before sunset, reached Montreux. The crews rely on laminated sheets outlining road priorities. Drivers then radio status updates to supervisors.

The policy for snow removal ranks major arteries and access to mountainside neighborhoods — Highlands Drive Northeast, for instance — as top priorities. Then, as conditions allow, crews plow the side streets branching out across the city.

Patterson, en route to the Public Works Operations facility along First Avenue Northeast after the stint in Montreux, stopped at The Grange Supply to fill up on diesel. The tab for fueling a snowplow is about $150.

The constant use amid harsh weather exacts a toll on the vehicles, despite the trucks’ tank-like resilience.

Dave Boyle, a city heavy equipment mechanic dubbed a “savior” by snowplow drivers, mends the wear-and-tear on the trucks. The most common issues stem from chains on the tires, brake components and the rubber plow edges, he said.

Motorists present another challenge to snowplow crews.

Though the snowplows carry a sign on the rear to remind motorists to remain at least 100 feet from the vehicle — “some people follow it, some don’t,” Patterson said — and a flashing light, motorists sometimes drive too close in the hope to ride on clear streets.

In Issaquah, road conditions differ from neighborhood to neighborhood, due to changes in elevation.

Snow might blanket Forest Rim — Squak Mountain’s highest-elevation neighborhood — even as the lowlands remain bare. Other neighborhoods at higher elevations, such as the Issaquah Highlands and Talus, also require additional scrutiny from road crews.

(Outside Issaquah city limits, King County Roads Services Division teams handle roads in the unincorporated county and the state Department of Transportation is responsible for interstate and state highways.)

The snow last week offered the initial test. Forecasters called for snow to turn to rain after the snowstorm, and for temperatures to climb into the 40s. The abrupt shift means Public Works Operations crews shifted gears to face flooding in Issaquah.

So, teams delivered generators to key sites throughout the city to run pump stations if electricity failed amid the snowstorm. Officials also stationed utility trucks across Issaquah. If the snowstorm led to flooding later, crews planned to swap chainsaws meant for hacking apart fallen trees for road closure signs to direct motorists around floodwaters.

“We’ve been through this so many times before that we know,” Jeffrey Estrin, a longtime city maintenance worker, said during a drive around the city just before sunset Jan. 17.

In the meantime, crews criss-crossed the city to remove snow from streets. High on Squak Mountain, Estrin rolled down a window to address a resident building a snowman on a snow-covered island in a cul-de-sac’s center.

“We’ll have a plow up here real soon,” he said.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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