All the snow makes Lois Slater see red, and she’s thrilled.
“People think that I’m crazy but I love ‘condition red,”’ says Slater, who runs the two-way radio at the city of Spokane’s street maintenance building. “It’s exciting.”
A “condition red” is the city’s term for full-scale plowing and de-icing. It means nearly every available piece of equipment - sanders, graders, truck plows and snow blowers - is out moving snow off streets.
It means nearly 45 street crew workers and drivers borrowed from other city departments work 12-hour shifts until the job is done - typically taking two to three days depending on the snow load.
It also means Slater rarely leaves her desk between arriving at 5:30 a.m. and leaving at 5:30 p.m. She’s too busy keeping track of where crews are plowing and where they should head next, she says.
“It’s easier for me if I don’t take breaks,” Slater says.
Just one week into winter, Spokane residents already have seen more than 56 inches of snow. An average year yields about 50 inches total.
The city has declared a “condition red” twice in the past two weeks. Last winter, that warning never happened.
“It has been a bit much this year,” Slater said.
City, county and state road crews across Eastern Washington struggled to keep up Friday, trying to clear several feet of snow from thousands of miles of roads.
“They’re getting tired,” says Phil Barto, county operations engineer, of the 80 road crew workers on the job Friday afternoon.
“They’re cranking, that’s for sure,” says Ed McCallister of the state Department of Transportation, which has 105 pieces of equipment on the job in seven counties. “They’re also pooped.”
Terry Thompson, city street maintenance supervisor, tracks weather patterns on a computer.
A storm expected to pound Spokane on Friday swept through with little accumulation, Thompson says, adding that a “monster storm” is expected Sunday.
“At this point, it doesn’t matter one way or another,” he says. “We’re beyond the point of caring that much.”
Rick Sims, who’s driven a city grader 12 hours a day every day this week, says he’s running on straight caffeine.
“It’s a nightmare out there right now,” he says, adding he gets a mixed reaction from residents. “Most people are pretty good. Others give you the finger.”
Cranky people aren’t the job’s only unpleasantries. There also are cars hidden by huge snow berms that lose mirrors to the plow’s blades, or groups of kids that target plow drivers with snowballs.
Walt Wagner, a driver for the wastewater department on loan to the street division, says he spends most of his plow time thinking about the “usual stuff.” That is, until he has to squeeze his 10-wheeler truck between cars parked down both sides of a narrow residential street.
“When I’m going between cars, I’m pretty focused,” he says after passing within inches of a sports car’s side mirror. “That’s where the world is right then. If not, you could be in big trouble.”
Minutes later, an impatient man in a pickup truck drives over a snowbank to pass behind the truck as Wagner backs up.
“You always have to watch for that,” he says. “You have to virtually have eyes in the back of your head.”
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