Winter work

Despite a blaring CB radio, white-knuckled drivers sliding down the road and steering a roughly 60,000-pound snowplow in blizzard-like conditions, Daniel Jones carries on a relaxing conversation, even yawning now and then.

"It's just like driving to me now," said the 34-year-old operator of an Oregon Department of Transportation winter plow. "But it takes a couple years before you don't get nervous about it."

Jones has been working with the Ashland-based ODOT crew responsible for clearing this stretch of Interstate 5 leading over the Siskiyou Pass for six winters.

As Wednesday's storm started dumping snow there, the crew started working around the clock for its first big outing of the year.

"We've been out, probably, 10 times this winter," said Jones. "It's usually about 20 by now."

And those snow days have been from mostly short-spurt storms, he said.

"It's been great for drivers, and we want to keep it that way," said Allen Walters, who has been operating an ODOT snowplow for 25 years. "Not to mention the commerce, the commerce has got to continue getting over this mountain."

The stretch of freeway leading over the Siskiyous is the main vein linking California and Oregon, and touted by some as the most treacherous stretch of road on I-5.

During summer, the smell of burning brakes lingers on the steep climb to its 4,129-foot summit. And as winter storms like Wednesday's continue to drop snow in the area, many commercial trucks need an extra shove to make it up the iced-over grade.

It takes 24 hours worth of plowing to keep up with the snowfall when a storm starts letting loose, said Everett Carroll, transportation manager for ODOT.

"It's a well-planned operation for keeping these roads open," he said. "We'll start the logistics of it months before winter, just to make sure everyone's reading from the same sheet of music when the first storm hits."

For every hour the interstate is shut down, it costs about $30,000 in vehicle delays alone, said Carroll, not counting lost business, which is closer to $200,000 an hour.

"We're talking hundreds of thousands of dollars lost for each state," said Carroll. "It's real important to keep commerce moving safely here, and really important to keep it open and safe for the traveling public."

Carroll said a 24-hour plowing schedule, like he is running now, costs ODOT about $10,000 to $15,000 a day in labor and equipment costs. The passing storm system could continue dropping a few inches of snow on the pass each night until Friday at least, predicts the National Weather Service in Medford.

Up to eight inches was expected to fall overnight, which would add to the 6 inches that fell there on Wednesday. ODOT ran eight snow plows and two push trucks to keep the freeway passable.

The push trucks are used to shove commercial trucks struggling for traction up the slick roads. Four plows were dedicated to the south side of the summit, to the California-Oregon border, and the other four took the north side, down to the snowline. Running the roughly 5-mile loops, one plow will tack on about 250 miles a day trying to keep up with a heavy snowfall.

"What we're doing now is called hogging it out," said 53-year-old Walters, whose plow is equipped with extendable booms to spray deicer. "I'm not laying down any deicer right now, were just scraping and sanding "… trying to get it as bare as possible."

The deicer, a diluted magnesium chloride liquid compound, is sprayed onto the road to prevent a bond between pavement and snow. It works better when it's applied to a road with less or no snow, said Walters.

His truck can carry 1,600 gallons, and crews apply about 15 to 40 gallons per lane per mile, depending on conditions and the expected severity of incoming storms.

It costs about $1 per gallon, said Carroll. The sand that the plows spread behind them is actually crushed red cinder rock, and it runs the department $10 to $13 per yard, he said.

With the 30-degree temperature dropping on Wednesday evening, and a severe weather warning from ODOT, conditions on the pass likely will remain slick and snowy through today, and possibly into the weekend.

"It really takes a lot to keep these roads open," Carroll said. "But the taxpayers and commerce can't ask for much else, it's worth it ... they're working hard up here."

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email

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