Making new tracks in Eagle County |

Making new tracks in Eagle County

Melanie WongVail, CO Colorado
NWS Snowplow 02 TS 01-05-08

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – It is 3 a.m., and Ray Long is wakened by a phone call giving him the weather report – it’s snowing.That is the cue for Long and the rest of the Eagle County snowplowing crew to climb behind the wheels of their trucks and make some first tracks.The 27-man crew covers three districts – McCoy, Basalt and El Jebel and Eagle – and maintains 513 miles of road. The Eagle district crews are responsible for all the roads from the top of Vail Pass to Glenwood Canyon except Interstate 70, U.S. Highway 6 or those that fall within the incorporated towns. Edwards, Eagle-Vail and all the crossroads of Highway 6 are top priorities, as well as school-bus and emergency routes, said county Road and Bridge Director Brad Higgins.”It’s not the most glamorous job,” he said. “But this is a dedicated bunch.”Not your 9-to-5 jobThe crews keep a close eye on the weather, doing daily early-morning checks at different locations in the county. They don’t rely on weather reports, either – the best way to do it is personally going out and taking a peek because the weather can vary so dramatically across the valley, said Gordon Adams, assistant road and bridge director.”It could be starry skies in Gypsum and dumping in Vail,” he said.The snow checks happen at 2 a.m. every day.”If there’s snow, the trucks are rolling by 4 a.m. If the snow stops, it’s an eight-hour shift. Otherwise, we’re out until the snow stops,” said John Harris, the Eagle district supervisor.During the snowiest seasons, the drivers are always on call and could work an entire month without a day off. “There’s not too many hours at home when it’s snowing hard,” Harris said.The crew has 12 routes, and to completely clear one route can take about 200 miles. On heavy snow days, Long said he can log as many as 500 miles.”You can pretty much spend all day driving,” he said. “Most of the guys pack a lunch and make sure to bring plenty of water because there isn’t much time to stop.”The department has several kinds of trucks from Ford Rangers to “motor graters” that helps break up snowpack in high elevations to “tandems,” the largest trucks, which carry as much as 15 tons of sanding material.The trucks go out with tons upon tons of sand, salt and rock mix. On the heaviest snow days, the crews can go through more than 200 tons.Snowplow know-howWhile the county has grown quickly, the size of the plowing crew has not. Even then, said Harris with pride, in his 20-plus years with the Road and Bridge Department, his crew has never been completely overwhelmed, and schools have never had to shut down due to snow.Most of the drivers have years of experience, something they need in order to navigate the snowy mountain roads, Harris said.It takes “a commercial driver’s license and a lot of common sense,” he said.”You never know what’s the next corner, and you’re hitting the roads when there are no tracks,” he said. “You’re not a snowplow driver till you are on your side.”It is not uncommon to run off the road when trying to avoid a car or for a truck to roll onto its side after hitting a false snowbank. That was the situation Long found himself in a few weeks ago while plowing Bellyache Ridge.”I was going around the inside corner, and my plow caught the edge of the snow and tipped over. It was early in the morning, and I ended up sitting on top of my passenger-side window waiting to get pulled out,” he said.But close calls and a little off-roading are usually all in a day’s work, and it makes for good stories to share when the shift is over, Long said.A thankless jobDespite their efforts, it is a thankless job.The department often gets calls from people wondering why the roads “aren’t plowed,” how come the plowed snow has covered their recently shoveled driveway or why there is a snowbank in their yard from the discarded snow.”Nobody likes the snowplow,” Harris said. “From the front, it looks like they’re going so fast, throwing snow all over the place. From the behind, it’s slow and always in the way. We’re out early, waking people up.” The plows are usually out so early that people only notice when they wake up and see the second layer of snow covering the already plowed road, said driver Bill Bocelewatz.”You plow it, it snows on it, and you go back,” he said. “People look at it, and it looks like you didn’t do anything.”Still, the crew members take great pride in their work, Harris said.”People here don’t miss work, and the numbers of wrecks are lower on our roads. We go above and beyond to make sure our roads are the safest, and it’s rewarding to know that,” he said.Also, the job allows the drivers to be outdoors and see wildlife and great views, the drivers said.”You get to drive around and see some of the most beautiful country in the world. It’s not like someone sitting in the office,” Higgins said.Snow countryHarris peered at the bright, sunny skies on Friday. The warm days in the middle of winter are suspicious, he said, and usually mean a storm is coming in.Sure enough, snowstorms blanketed Eagle County this weekend. And you can bet the snowplow crews were in the thick of it.Harris shrugged. It would be another typical day at work.”It’s snow country, you know,” he said.==========================Tips for coping with snow season• Bus and emergency routes are plowed first. Side streets like residential, school and business access streets are next, then smaller streets like cul-de-sacs.• Drive with caution around plow trucks, and wear reflective clothing if you are jogging or walking along a road after dark. The trucks are quite high up and may need some time to see you.• Wait to shovel driveways until the plows have finished, or expect to have to shovel it again.• Wait until after the plows go by to put trash cans out for pickup, and retrieve them as soon as they are emptied.• Snow-storage space extends 10 feet off the edge of the road and may include part of a yard. Don’t put valuable landscaping, as they may be damaged.• A cup of coffee or a snack is a great way to say thanks to your local plow driver.• For complaints, concerns or suggestions, call the Road and Bridge Department at 328-3540.================Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 748-2928 or

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