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Spokane bringing out graders for thick, heavy mess

Residential streets and some arterials turned into a rutted mess this morning, forcing drivers to pick their way through deep tracks of soft, slushy snow.

The city of Spokane is responding by declaring a stage 2 emergency and launching a citywide plowing of residential streets with heavy graders rather than plow trucks.

Temperatures above freezing throughout the night turned hard-packed snow that was passable into a soft layer that no longer holds the weight of vehicles.

Fifty Spokane school buses got stuck in the mess Thursday.

“These are extremely challenging conditions,” said Mayor Mary Verner in a press conference this morning.

Residential plowing will start in four areas of the city that have the worst conditions - northeast Spokane, north central Spokane and southeast Spokane. On the city’s snow plow map, they areas are 3, 5, 9 and 13, she said.

In an earlier press release, the city reported that the city’s truck plows “are having a difficult time moving the heavy material so the city will need to rely more on graders. The city has 10 graders in its fleet and is calling in a dozen private contractors with graders to help with the effort. They also are looking into renting graders.”

The city this morning was still working to clear secondary arterials and bus routes that are clogged with soft snow.

Mark Serbousek, streets director, said the wet snow and ice weighted down by some rain was so heavy this morning that truck plows could not move it.

As a result, the city is going into residential streets starting this afteroon with teams of a truck plow and grader, a process that will be slow going and take five days to complete.

The city is asking residents to comply with a new system in which all cars must be moved to the sides of streets with even house numbers by tonight. Compliance was spotty at best during the first round of residential plowing in recent days.

In Spokane Valley, spokeswoman Carolbelle Branch said in an e-mail, “We do have crews going out to check areas along secondary arterials to clean up areas of packed ice, and will work to address residential areas where traffic flow is substantially inhibited.”

In Coeur d’Alene, crews were working to move snow on residential streets, but the weight of slush and ice was slowing drivers and causing problems keeping chunks from spilling into driveway openings, according to the snow update phone line.

Spokane County was turning to its residential streets and had 80 pieces of equipment under way.

For now, the best hope is that temperatures remain above freezing and that the snow breaks down enough from tire action to make the streets more driveable.

There is a risk that freezing temperatures over the weekend could cement the rutted snow into mounds and ridges of rugged ice.

National Weather forecasters are calling for a temperature of 32 in downtown Spokane and 36 in Coeur d’Alene today with chances of light rain and snow in Spokane and light snow in Coeur d’Alene. Lows tonight should be about 25 in Spokane and 29 in Coeur d’Alene.

Then, the region gets a break through the next several days from the snowfall that brought a record 25.9 inches of snow in November, with all but 2.4 inches coming in the last 10 days of the month.

With another 0.7 inches falling on Wednesday, the total stands at 26.6 inches for the season.

That is about double the 13.7 inches of snow that fell in all of 2009-2010 winter season.

Temperatures in Spokane should drop to the 20s and teens at night and the upper 20s during the day this weekend.

Slightly warmer temperatures are likely in Coeur d’Alene, which should stay in the low 20s for lows at night this weekend.

The next chance of snow comes on Monday night and Tuesday, but could be mixed with rain with rising snow levels on Wednesday.

That should bring another chance to melt off the mess on residential streets in the Spokane area.

At 10 a.m., it was 34 in Coeur d’Alene and at Felts Field near Spokane Valley and 32 at Spokane International Airport.