Inside Seven
Current Issue: September 2014
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Crews from the Lebec and Valencia maintenance stations (with help from Lancaster and Newhall) handle snow removal on I-5's Grapevine.

Snow on the Grapevine? District 7 is Ready!
by  Kelly Markham
Issue Date: 01/2011

When snow flies on I-5, crews at the Lebec and Valencia maintenance stations work around the clock to keep the freeway open.

[Hover mouse over photos to read captions. Click to enlarge.]

For the 18 maintenance workers at the Lebec and Valencia maintenance stations, the weather forecast is serious business. An emerging low-pressure system, a drop in the barometric pressure, freezing temperatures – these are all signs that their work life is about to get more complicated. They’re signs that snow could be on the way, blanketing the “Snow Zone” on the Golden State Freeway (I-5) and potentially shutting down the backbone of the state’s freeway system. That’s exactly what happened this past weekend, when blizzard-like conditions turned the Grapevine into a treacherous drive and forced a freeway closure.

The Snow Zone is typically between Gorman and Frazier Park, a distance of about five miles. But during severe storms, it can stretch from Fort Tejon to Templin Highway – that’s 25 miles. Now for the snow math: four lanes in both directions for 25 miles is about 200 lane miles of snow that needs to be plowed.

The Lebec and Valencia crews know snow. They know how to melt it, move it and manage it so traffic can get through the Tejon Pass high up in the Tehachapi Mountains, a vital link connecting Northern and Southern California. And when heavy snowfall, slick ice and fierce winds force a freeway shutdown, they have the tools, skills and perseverance required to reopen it as quickly as possible.

Snow season on I-5 begins in late October and usually ends in March, though snow has fallen as late as June. The season kicks off with the annual “Operation Snowflake” meeting attended by Caltrans staff, county officials, and the California Highway Patrol (CHP). The meeting is an opportunity for all the players to go over snow strategy for the upcoming season.

When snow is in the forecast, the crucial variable for Caltrans crews is elevation. If snow is predicted below 4,500 feet, the Lebec and Valencia crews go on high alert, ready to report for duty and spend 12 hours at a stretch behind the wheel of a plow. Newhall and Lancaster crews assist if needed.

“When it starts snowing, they constantly patrol. If they didn’t, the snow accumulates, and then it’s just so much harder,” said Tom Cowan, maintenance area superintendent, North Region, Area 4. “They’re really good. They stay on top of it.”

The primary weapon in the battle against snow is the 10-wheel dump truck, outfitted with a plow, sander and sometimes a wing plow, which allows the driver to plow two lanes at once. Graders and loaders may be used if the ice pack is thick. Another crucial tool, new to District 7’s snow-fighting arsenal, is Ice Slicer, a super-melty de-icer that’s less corrosive and more eco-friendly than salt.

“We’ve been using Ice Slicer for two years now and getting good results. We mix it with sand and cinders, and it melts right through the ice,” said Cowan. And that’s exactly what crews need it to do.

“We don’t have a snow problem on I-5 – we have an ice problem,” said Ed Toledo, acting regional manager, North Region. “The road freezes and motorists are still trying to do 70 miles an hour. Chains aren’t required and people don’t have snow tires here the way they do back East, so drivers lose traction and we get spin-outs.”

Clearing the freeway in a heavy snowfall becomes even more difficult if crews must contend with disabled cars and jackknifed trucks. So when the freeway starts getting slick, CHP, with input from Caltrans, may determine that the Grapevine needs to be closed. I-5 closures occur usually three or four times each year, lasting anywhere from a few hours to a few days. (The closure that began this past Sunday afternoon lasted about 24 hours.) North Region spray crews set up the closure.

“We’ll close the freeway northbound in Castaic and southbound in Grapevine. That way, motorists are in a place where they have resources – restaurants, hotels, bathrooms. If they come up the mountain, they get stuck,” said Cowan. “It’s nice once the road is closed. We can get out there and do our job without worrying about traffic. It’s quite a sight to watch three vehicles in a row plowing four lanes, watching the snow shoot off to the side.”

The skilled maintenance crews make plowing look easy, like heavy equipment choreography. But make no mistake: this is no easy task. All plow drivers go through extensive training, receiving instruction in plow operation and repair. They learn to watch for raised grates and broken slabs, which can damage plows or cause the truck to spin out. Drivers must also become familiar with the contours of the freeway, which dictate where they’ll push the snow. It’s knowledge that’s second nature to veterans and inscrutable to newbies.

As crews make headway on snow removal after a storm, CHP may run low-speed escorts over the mountain to test the freeway’s drivability. They’ll lead packs of cars going about 25 miles per hour, keeping motorists traveling at a safe speed for conditions. If all goes well, the freeway will then be opened to traffic. If not, motorists can wait out the snow or follow detour instructions provided on changeable message signs, which typically send them out toward the coast and around the mountains via the Ventura Freeway (US 101).

So far this winter, there’s been only one freeway-closing storm – the one that blew through on New Year’s weekend. And when (dare we say if?) another snowfall turns I-5 into an ice-slicked gauntlet, the crews in North Region, Area 4, will be ready for it.

“They’re a great bunch of guys and they work long, hard hours without stopping. They do what they need to do to be responsible for the area,” said Cowan. “And they like plowing. Who doesn’t like to play in the snow?”

See the District 7 Snow Team in action below.

Left to right: Ed Toledo, acting regional manager, North Region, and Tom Cowan, maintenance area superintendent, North Region, Area 4. Crews begin plowing as soon as it begins snowing to prevent a build-up of snow and ice. The Tejon Pass, a vital link between Northern and Southern California, is typically closed three or four times every year due to snow accumulation, fierce winds and icy pavememt. The primary weapon in the battle against snow is the 10-wheel dump truck outfitted with a plow, sander and sometimes a wing plow.