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Tow truck drivers keep rigs moving

Wed., Dec. 31, 2008, midnight

Tow companies have been in high demand since the snow started to fall almost two weeks ago, and with three more storms on the way, expect a wait.

The National Weather Service issued a winter weather advisory that’s in effect through 7 a.m. today.This storm was expected to bring 3 more inches of snow to Spokane and 4 inches to Coeur d’Alene. By Monday morning, forecasters say accumulations could be close to a foot of fresh flakes for the Inland Northwest. The flakes will be accompanied by wind gusts as high as 30 mph, which could cause drifting snow, officials said.

“It’s a very active pattern,” said Rocco Pelatti, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service. “We’ll have little breaks, like today,” but there are six or seven new storm systems set to land in the Inland Northwest between now and Jan. 9.

When the weather hits, motorists start calling tow companies for help.

Rouse’s Towing of Spokane says the recent storms have brought them more than twice the usual calls, and there’s a backlog of up to three days.

“Our drivers just go until they drop,” said co-owner Betsy Merrill. “It’s cold, and it’s hard, and they are working long days.”

Merrill, who joined the company in 1975 as a tow truck driver, said this is, unequivocally, the worst weather she’s seen in Spokane. The only comparable time, she said, was the 1996 ice storm.

Back then, “we followed Avista trucks around pulling them out of ditches,” said Merrill, adding the company has pulled out a few Spokane County and state plows in recent days.

Rouse’s is the only tow company in Spokane with trucks big enough to tow large rigs, such as snowplows and semis. Four of the company’s 20 trucks can tow semis.

Their services have been high demand as semi after semi has become lodged in snow, which authorities say has been a major traffic issue.

Eight semis got stuck Tuesday before 2 p.m., police officials said. With only one company available to help, traffic can be backed up for as long as three hours, officials said.

The big rigs become stuck for two main reasons, Merrill said. “No chains is the biggest reason. No. 2 is they try to turn corners they can’t make.”

Drifting snow can be a problem on the West Plains, she added.

On a normal service day, Rouse’s receives about 45 requests for help, Merrill said. During the last two weeks, the company has fielded more than 100 calls each day.

“We have calls that have been waiting three days,” she said.

Kellogg’s Towing in Mead runs a smaller operation, but it’s booked out three days, too, said manager Paul Weiss. “The list just keeps on going.”

While tow truck drivers have been a welcome sight to many stranded motorists, the Better Business Bureau has received a handful of complaints from consumers who say some companies are taking advantage of the situation and overcharging, said Holly Doering, a charity review and grants coordinator for the BBB.

Plow update

Agencies were putting together a plan on Tuesday to deal with what’s expected to be new rounds of blowing and drifting snow this week, including Thursday night and Friday, said Lisa Jameson, emergency operations manager for the Department of Emergency Services.

Plow crews reported making progress Monday.

Five truck plows equipped with sand and salt spreaders arrived in the Spokane region on Tuesday from Tacoma and Aberdeen to beef up the state’s 100-plus pieces of road clearing equipment already on duty in the northeast region, which has 1,600 miles of state highways, according to the Washington Department of Transportation.

The state was putting some of its crews on county roads to help reopen them.

Al Gilson, DOT spokesman, said the cross-state trucks with 10 operators will be running 24 hours a day for the next seven days.

The Washington Air National Guard was also activated, and it is using a runway snowblowing truck to help clear drifts from closed county roads, officials said.

The county has also brought in 14 private trucks through contracts.

In Spokane, crews were finishing emergency routes, major and secondary arterials and bus routes and were starting another round of residential plowing, city spokeswoman Marlene Feist said.

Residents with alley garbage service are asked to move their containers to the street. Extra garbage will be collected if last week’s pickup was missed. Extra refuse should be bagged.

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