Snowstorm traps hundreds of vehicles on highway in mountain pass

| Monday, January 05, 2004

A snowstorm trapped hundreds of car and truck drivers Sunday, Dec. 28, in Siskiyou Pass, a mountainous area of southern Oregon that contains a large stretch of I-5, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation.

The closure ran from Redding, CA, up to Ashland, OR, about 150 miles.

The Associated Press said workers spent much of the night ferrying supplies to trapped drivers and freeing vehicles.

Jared Castle, a spokesman for ODOT, said that by Tuesday, the highway had been cleared – although conditions can change very quickly, and additional closures are possible.

“We’re looking for another good storm on New Year’s Day,” he lamented. “It will be wonderful.”

The ODOT hotline was still cautioning drivers Tuesday to continue to carry chains or traction tires with them. Castle said the state requires that all vehicles traveling through the pass carry chains or some other traction device, although they do not have to be in use unless conditions require it.

The lack of such devices can contribute to highway shutdowns: If a car spins out or a truck jackknifes on the pass, he said, it can quickly create a short-term shut down, even if there’s only a small amount of snow. But the main problem Sunday night was the number of car drivers in the pass who clearly didn’t know what they were getting into.

“We had an awful lot of people who weren’t prepared at all to spend that much time on the pass,” he said. “When they were snowed in, they were barefoot, wearing shorts, didn’t have food or water, and, of course, they didn’t have chains.”

“Generally we don’t have any issues with commercial trucking at all to speak of,” Castle said. “These guys know the area very well.”

However, a significant number of truckers were trapped in the pass during the closure. While he did not have an exact count, Castle said that by late Monday, most of the vehicles remaining in the pass were commercial vehicles waiting for the highway to open.

“We give people the option of staying in their vehicle or going to one of the shelters,” Castle said. “Most of the commercial truckers had enough supplies to stay in their trucks,” and waited for the road to open so they could deliver their loads. 

With 100 to 200 vehicles stuck in the snowy weather, ODOT and the state police focused on getting the stranded motorists down out of the pass and into shelters, Castle said. All of drivers had been freed by Monday night; by Tuesday morning, all stranded vehicles on south side were removed, and the state was working on vehicles on the northbound side; all lanes were open.

If the weather turns bad again in the area, truck drivers may want to seek an alternative route. Castle said DOT officials checked conditions before suggesting alternate routes, but in general, U.S. 97 was a good alternative for commercial vehicles.

That decision may not be too far off. A forecast from the National Weather Service showed that more snow was expected in the region Tuesday through Saturday. A snow advisory was placed on roads above 2,000 feet elevation.

Current travel information for the area, or any other part of Oregon, is available on the state’s 511 line. Dial 5-1-1 in-state, or, if that number is not available, call 1-800-977-ODOT (1-800-977-6368). For people calling from outside the state, dial (503) 588-2941.

In addition, truck drivers with Internet access can consult ODOT’s travel Web site, www.tripcheck.com.

--by Mark H. Reddig, associate editor

Mark Reddig can be reached at mark_reddig@landlinemag.com.

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