Keeping the roads open at all costs
Last updated 3/14/2023 at Noon
Sisters Country woke up to snow Friday morning that persisted off and on throughout the day, with accumulations of five to eight inches depending on location. The weather event had been forecast fairly accurately and ODOT crews were ready.
The Nugget rode along with lead employee, George Ormsbee, in one of the two 465-horsepower plow rigs in the Sisters maintenance yard fleet on duty that morning. Many in Sisters do not even know of the yard’s existence two miles east of town on Highway 126, as it is concealed by trees.
The Sisters yard basically has only three roads to maintain — Highway 20 from Suttle Lake to Robal Road in Bend; Highway 126 through Redmond, and Highway 242. But two of the roads are essential arteries, one a federal highway that is the longest highway in the U.S., stretching from Massachusetts to the Oregon coast.
“Our primary goal is to keep the roads open at all costs,” Ormsbee said, as he pushed snow off the roads and/or sanded to keep the roads passable. “There better be a darned good reason to close the road, and we will do everything possible to keep that from happening.”
Indeed people’s livelihood, and occasionally life, depend on the roads remaining open. Ormsbee, who lives in Sisters, about a mile from the yard, wants the roads to be as they would be for his family who, like him, use them for their shopping, getting kids to school, attending meetings, and being able to get about safely and efficiently.
Our travels began at 4 a.m. Crews are working a lot of 12-hour shifts during the winter months. Getting on the roads early and staying on them is the key. They rely on the same weather forecasts used by the general citizenry, mostly from the NOAA, (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) but he has a couple of TV meteorologists that he thinks are particularly skilled at forecasting, one from Portland.
Still, it’s largely educated guesswork. Preparedness is the key. The trucks, very complicated mechanical rigs, look like an airline cockpit inside, with levers, dials, and switches to operate the plows and the sander. It’s a pneumatic tangle of hoses and lines and a web of springs, pins, chains, pulleys, and cables. Loaded, they weigh about 28 tons.
While strong, and built to custom specs that exceed the typical truck of its size, the rigs take a beating and require constant maintenance. Snow is heavy; when wet, very heavy. The front plow is eight feet wide and over three feet high. The side (wing) plow gives the rig another roughly four feet. The standard for U.S. highway lane is 15 feet.
On average a plow truck will run 25-35 mph as it’s removing snow. That translates to frustrated drivers behind the plow truck. We asked Ormsbee what’s the most important thing he wants other drivers to know.
“Patience,” he pleads. “Just let us do our job.”
Common misperceptions that Ormsbee cites include one that a plow truck has better visibility. He has the same thing in front of him as the cars behind him. Swirling snow or driving sleet is equally troublesome, meaning he could just as easily come around a blind curve with a disabled vehicle stuck in the middle of the road. Or a thousand-pound elk could jump in front of him.
With his weight and plows, he has great stopping power, generally more than the driver behind him. Following too closely to a plow truck is dangerous, to say nothing of sand hitting your paint job and windshield. Yet many drivers persistently follow too closely.
He is often “pushed” by cars behind him eager to get to Hoodoo for skiing. He has nowhere to pull off to let them pass even if it was safe.
As the crews had been out all night, Highway 20/126 was in relatively good shape by the time we hit it a little before 5 a.m. Ormsbee skillfully touched up some edges and inclines in need of a little more sand or blade action.
Highway 242 (McKenzie Highway) was another story. It’s a secondary road so it gets serviced last, but because it’s used by school buses and is the only route for residents of Crossroads, it gets priority at least to the Crossroads entrance. Beyond that, to the gate closed in the winter, it’s catch-up.
Snowmobilers, cross country skiers, and snowshoers are plentiful here, and rely on the road to be plowed. Friday morning it had a good eight or more inches when Ormsbee deftly took it down to bare pavement.
ODOT shares Sisters Country plowing with Deschutes County and the City of Sisters, and Friday they were all out in force tackling the wet mix.
Ormsbee chuckled a bit when he said, “In the winter, we’re all heroes. In the summer, not so much, when we are paving, striping, or removing the winter’s accumulation of sand.”
What goes down must all be picked up in the spring.
Ormsbee is one of six full-time, permanent employees and one seasonal worker based in Sisters.