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Snowplowing 101: what happens when a west coast storm hits

Here’s how the City of Port Alberni approaches snow clearing priorities during a storm
A City of Port Alberni single axle plow truck waits to turn left from Napier Street onto Third Avenue shortly after 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)

Snow fell so hard and fast in Port Alberni on Tuesday, Nov. 29 that, for a few hours, city plowing crews could barely keep up.

Emergency personnel have already said their busiest time of the snowstorm was between noon and 5 p.m. Clinton Wright, city manager of operations, public works yard, said the city’s plow crews were at full capacity during the same period. The Alberni Valley received 24 centimetres of snow on Tuesday, most of it falling in that five-hour period.

“We did employ all of our assets when the storm hit,” Wright said.

Crews were out the day before the storm to brine main roads in preparation of the snow. Brine is a liquid solution of salty water that has a lower freezing point than water on its own. It is often laid down in advance of freezing temperatures or snowfall to prevent ice from forming on asphalt, making it easier to plow right to the surface of a road.

The city has three tandem-axle dump trucks with plows affixed to the front; two are sanders and one has a brine tank attached the the back. There are also two single-axle plows in the fleet—one a sander and one a briner. They have a grader used on steep hills, and it’s able to make tighter corners too.

Crews also use a front-end loader in the works yard to load trucks with sand, and can use it to clear snow mounds once a snow event passes.

“If it’s a long event we have a lot of snow to get off the road.”

The plows can only be used once there is a certain amount of snow on the road, he added.

The city has a snow clearing priority map that shows major routes that are cleared first, followed by lesser-used or residential areas. Each driver is given a section of the map to clear, but they could be called away from their section to help in an area that has been harder hit or is causing problems for drivers—much like Redford Street was on Tuesday.

“That’s why in a heavy event you see the snow accumulate,” Wright explained. “It’s because we’re spread out and we haven’t been able to get back to that point. Some people think we’re not out there…we’re doing everything we can to mitigate any hazards.”

City crews clear roads within the city. Mainroad Contracting takes care of Highway 4 and Pacific Rim Highway as part of their Mid-Island Service Area 2 (about 3,259 lane kilometres of roadway), and also clears rural roads in the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District except for private contracts on Bamfield Road and Salmon Beach.

While the city budgeted $198,088 for snow clearing in 2022, about 2.5 percent more than 2021, “we’re not restricted by that budget for snow removal. Winter’s unpredictable so there are some years we’ll go over (budget) and some we will be under,” Wright said.

“Although it’s a guideline it’s not set in stone for winter maintenance. At this point it’s about getting out there and making the roads as safe as possible.”

The Alberni Valley wasn’t unique in the amount of snow it received on Tuesday: Courtenay received 25 centimetres, Campbell River received 21 cm and the entire south coast was hit with snow, wind, power outages and traffic snarls. The snowfall led to a 94 percent increase in reported ICBC claims—3,567 on Tuesday compared with 1,837 provincewide the previous Tuesday.

This isn’t the end of the snowy weather, either: Environment Canada issued a snowfall warning for the region, saying a low pressure system will bring heavy, wet snow of between 5 and 15 cm starting in the afternoon on Friday, Dec. 2 and continuing until Saturday morning.

Advice from ICBC to drivers includes making sure your vehicle is equipped to handle the weather, leave yourself more time to get to your destination, go slow and steady with space between you and the car in front of you, and don’t drive if you don’t have to.

Wright said city plows were out Thursday cleaning up streets, widening the driveable areas and putting down brine in anticipation of Friday’s expected snow. Crews will be called in on Friday as necessary.

“We pre-treat (with brine) and get out there as quick as we can to respond, and that’s all we can do.”

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Susie Quinn

About the Author: Susie Quinn

A journalist since 1987, I proudly serve as the Alberni Valley News editor.
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