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National Guard helps school dig out

SANDPOINT – The National Guard was called in against the snow Saturday, with Idaho soldiers taking up shovels to clear school roofs in Sandpoint and a Washington Air Guard crew opening snow-clogged roads in rural Spokane County.

Forty members of the Idaho National Guard arrived at Sandpoint High around 2 p.m. Saturday, much to the relief of school officials and contract employees who had been shoveling for hours. The snow on 130,000-square-foot Sandpoint High piled to three or four feet, and it was just as bad at other area schools.

“We weren’t in a spot where we were anticipating any roof collapses, but we wanted to make sure we’re in a position to handle the snow loads,” said Dick Cvitanich, superintendent of Sandpoint schools.

An auditorium roof at the high school collapsed during a big snowfall in 1996-‘97. Idaho Guard members helped then, too.

Meanwhile, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire called out a crew of Washington Air National Guard members stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base. The crew of nine with the 141st Air Refueling Wing spent Saturday clearing deep snow on roads in rural Spokane County and planned to get at roads in the Spangle area this weekend. Gregoire has declared a statewide emergency because of fallout from the snowstorms.

The Idaho Guard members, out of the Lewiston-based 145th Brigade Support Battalion, are on a seven-day mission. They were hoping to finish their work in Sandpoint within a couple of days and turn to the next priority, which hadn’t been decided Saturday, said Capt. Bill Muthiora.

Sandpoint and Bonner County saw some of the region’s heaviest snowfall over the past week, and officials there say their resources were stretched thin. School officials tried to stay ahead of the snow, hiring contract employees to clear it, but they had difficulty keeping up with roofs.

County commissioners, whose snow-removal resources were strapped, declared a state of emergency Thursday. Gov. Butch Otter followed suit Friday for several North Idaho counties and called in the National Guard.

On Saturday afternoon, Cvitanich and some contract crews had been on the roof for hours when word came that Guard vehicles had been spotted nearing Sandpoint.

“This will be good,” he said, smiling. “This will be good. I’m looking forward to this.”

The Guard members came with stacks of shovels, 10 snowblowers and two front-end scoop loaders. Muthiora said that all the soldiers volunteered and that most were North Idaho residents.

“This is what the National Guard does,” he said. “People have kind of forgotten about that because of the larger mission going on in the world.”

A growing problem for crews all over Bonner County is finding places to put the plowed snow, officials said. In Sandpoint, snow was piled everywhere – head-high berms line some neighborhood streets.

At the high school, snow removal was going in shifts: shoveling or snowblowing the flat roof in the center onto the pitched roof sides, clearing the pitched roof, then moving the snow with heavy equipment away from the building.

“That’s our next big problem,” said Sid Rayfield, facilities director for Sandpoint schools. “When we get it off the roof, it comes right up to the roof.”

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