Inside Seven
Current Issue: September 2014
Caltrans snow plows on I-5 during Operation Snowflake.

Operation Snowflake 2013: A perspective

by  Patrick Chandler
Issue Date: 04/2013

When snow is falling on the Golden State Freeway (I-5) in the Grapevine, temperatures are in the mid-20s and the conditions on the highway become icy and slippery. That's when Caltrans and the CHP activate Operation Snowflake. Once the operation is activated, the I-5 closes from Parker Road to Grapevine (approximately 30 miles) and the freeway looks post-apocalyptic with little-to-no lights for miles. Sometimes, Operation Snowflake can be activated on the Antelope Freeway (SR-14) or the Pearblossom Highway (SR-138). To meet the call, several experienced Caltrans staff are prepared to clear the ice and snow, and help motorists get to where they need to go.

When Operation Snowflake is activated, Senior Transportation Engineer and Traffic Management Team Manager Sam Esquenazi jumps in his department SUV at the Los Angeles Regional Transportation Management Center (TMC) and heads north to the Lebec Maintenance Yard, which also doubles as Operation Snowflake Operations Center for Caltrans and CHP. Esquenazi oversees the changeable message signs (CMSs) and detours put in place to inform and redirect traffic. Operations activates CMSs five, ten, and fifteen miles out from the closure.

“We’ve got it nailed, it’s almost routine,” said Esquenazi. “We plan early for this operation and we have a lot of very experienced staff.” Also, in the area is 26-year employee Maintenance Superintendent Tom Cowan, who too oversees the coordination of plow trucks during Operation Snowflake. Sometimes the conditions on one side of the Grapevine can be sunny and warm, but the other side could be covered in snow and ice. "We’re ready for anything that Mother Nature can throw at us,” said Cowan. “We rely on each other and we use radio communication to keep up with the road conditions.”

In addition to the plow trucks, several sheds with sand, cinder (crushed lava rocks), and Ice Slicer (a de-icing agent similar to salt) are stationed along I-5, SR-14, and SR-138.

Unlike in other parts of the state or the country, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) requests the closure generally because motorists and truck drivers do not slow down or change their driving behavior for the icy conditions and occasionally cause traffic collisions. “If and when there is a traffic collision or a vehicle gets stuck, more problems could ensue,” said Cowan. “Drivers unwilling to change their driving habits, bald tires with no traction, and snowy conditions are a bad combination.”

For the most part, Operation Snowflake was smooth during the district’s snowfalls this year. “We’re just doing our jobs,” said Esquenazi. “When the closures happen, we’ll be ready,” said Esquenazi.

A very dark I-5 before Operation Snowflake was activated. I-5 during Operation Snowflake.  Only Caltrans and CHP vehicles were permitted access.