An intense snow storm today claimed the life of one Interstate 5 traveler in Southwest Washington while another pileup to the south near Albany, Ore., blocked I-5 for hours, both causing massive backups.
The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning for all of Western Oregon and much of Southwest Washington where 3 to 7 inches was forecast through tonight.
The first of the big snow started arrived at some locations this morning, including the areas where the accidents occurred.
The storm is well to the south of the urban centers of the Puget Sound basin, but may spread as far north as southern Thurston County just south of Olympia.
As many as 27 vehicles, including semi trucks, were involved in the pileup near the Battle Ground interchange on I-5 about 10 miles north of Vancouver about 10 a.m.
Along with the fatality, several people were trapped in smashed vehicles and had to be rescued. Among the injured were one person in critical condition and two others in serious condition.
According to the Vancouver Columbian, which quoted a Washington state trooper, the pileups began as two separate wrecks that led to numerous other collisions. People driving too fast for conditions were blamed for the accidents.
A video taken along the accident scene showed a moderate layer of snow being blown by blustery east winds with ice and snow coating the pavement.
The storm triggered numerous other accidents, authorities said.
By mid-afternoon, the Portland-Vancouver area was undergoing what is expected to be its worst snow storm since 2009, the weather service said. Much of the urban area saw its first snowfall around noon.
The region has been hit by the same arctic air affecting the Inland Northwest. Wind chills today at Portland International Airport were in the single digits with temperatures near 20. Wind gusts to 38 mph were reported there at 3 p.m.
At the same time, moist air from the ocean is being driven inland by an unusual off-shore low that had migrated westward along this week’s initial arctic frontal boundary and then split off and dropped south from the Vancouver Island area today.
As many of 25 vehicles collided in clusters in southbound lanes near Albany, the Oregon Department of Transportation said. A detour was then blocked by another crash.
No injuries were immediately reported, according to Associated Press.
“It’s pure chaos,” Oregon State Police Lt. Steve Mitchell said as troopers struggled to reach trucks and cars that crashed along the freeway. “For all intents and purposes, it’s shut down between Albany and Salem.”
Transportation spokesman Rick Little said it might be mid-afternoon before the wreckage was cleared.
“Everyone is just sitting and waiting,” he said.
Portland braced for a wicked afternoon commute, with three to seven inches of snow expected in that area.
The transportation agency said motorists should stay off highways if possible to avoid the kind of traffic nightmare that occurred in Atlanta last month when thousands of motorists were stranded.
National Weather Service forecasters said the storm will be the most widespread snow event in the northern and central Willamette Valley since December 2009. Little said it appeared three to five inches fell rapidly before the Albany crashes.
The storm is developing as moisture from the coast collides with an arctic air mass over the state. The cold is expected to last through the weekend, and a mix of snow and freezing rain could accompany moderating temperatures.
Winds today were being intensified by the approaching low pressure area off the coast.
The storm, which is extending into California, arrives in the midst of a severe drought along much of the West Coast where water supplies are being threatened. The region needs precipitation to boost snow pack and stream flows.
The weather service this afternoon reported that the San Francisco Bay area has seen 2 inches of rain today. Winter storm warnings were posted for portions of Northern California.
The drought has meant a slow start for many ski areas and sparked worries about the snow pack that supplies irrigation, hydropower and municipal water supplies in the state. A federal report on moisture conditions is due Friday.