Winter warriors |

Winter warriors

David L'Heureux
Bret Hartman/Vail DailyRick Ettles of Eagle County Road and Bridge plows a section of West Brush Creek Road with a grater Thusday in Eagle.

EAGLE COUNTY – Used to be, when John Harris got to the end of a county road he was plowing, there might be a happy homeowner with coffee, and maybe a doughnut, waiting for him. It was a modest gesture – a way of saying thanks for digging me out. Ahhh, the good old days.In today’s on-demand world, clear roads are something that people have come to expect. Residents of Eagle County are accustomed to getting where they want to go in any weather conditions.That’s where the Eagle County Road and Bridge Department comes in. Their responsibilities include all roads except Interstate 70, Highway 6, or those within an incorporated town. The number of roads has grown with the population, and the road and bridge crew has stayed the same size. Not surprisingly, “thank yous” have gotten harder to come by. “It’s been a long time since someone had a cup of coffee for me,” said Harris, the supervisor for road and bridge operations between Vail Pass and Glenwood Springs.Harris isn’t complaining, though, and getting thanks isn’t why he and his 11 crew members do their job. They get up at 4 a.m. to plow their 503 miles of road in Eagle County because they like their jobs, they are proud of what they do, and they like working for the county, he said. “It’s hard to find the right employees. They are a close-knit family, and they have to be,” said Harris. “They spend a lot of time with each other. They depend on each other for safety and they all have to show up or there will be a ton more work for someone else. It’s a great group of professionals here.”No snow daysIn many parts of the country, a foot of snow is cause for a state of emergency. For the plow guys at road and bridge, it’s just another day at the office.

While most people are still snuggled in bed, or pulling the covers up for one last snooze in the morning, the plow crews are clearing roads. Road and bridge director Brad Higgins said those early hours are one reason this crew sometimes doesn’t get the credit they deserve.”I think it’s an out of sight, out of mind thing,” said Higgins. “We have the roads done by the time people get up. My crews are awesome. For the amount of snow we get here, our complaints are minimal.”One complaint might be from kids in school. The high school has not shut down because of road conditions in Athletics Director Dave Scott’s 25 years of work at Eagle Valley.”John and Rick (Ettles), and all those guys are great,” said Scott. “I have never missed a day and I live 13 miles up Gypsum Creek. There have been days I wanted the day off, but they always get the roads cleared.”There is a reason Scott doesn’t get those days off according to plow operator Doug McKiernan.”Our No. 1 priority is to get the school bus routes open,” said McKiernan.The bus routes are classified as “main routes,” and they come first. After that comes secondary routes like side streets, outlying county roads and cul de sacs.”We try to time it where we hit the main routes once before the school busses start,” said Harris “If you do it too early, it can be covered with snow again before the buses get there.”The sheer volume of snow in Eagle County leads to unpredictable hours and working conditions. All employees of road and bridge are on call seven days a week, 365 days of year. “(The drivers) are in constant contact with me,” said Harris. “Even if they are just going to Avon or Glenwood. If we need them, they are on call. If there is snow in the forecast, they know they will be working.”

Plowing in a snow storm is another reality for these drivers. If an operator’s route is snowed back under when he’s done with it the first time, it’s back out for another lap.”The other day I was plowing up Brush Creek, and John was about 45 minutes behind me,” recounts plow driver Bill Bocelewatz. “He thought I didn’t have my plow down because there was already another six or eight inches on the road. That’s when you just start over.”There is no second crew for these guys. They are the second crew. As long as they are safe, they will work until the job is done, Harris said. “A lot of times on the big storms, the guys will be out there a long time,” said Harris. “We have had some 16 hour days. But our drivers are always well rested.”Industry hazardsExhaustion aside, sitting behind the wheel of a plow for eight to 10 hours in blizzard or flat light can be tough. Throw in a constant stream of snow coming up over the hood and windshield, and its easy to see how visibility might be a problem.”It’s a common misconception that these trucks handle great,” said Harris. “The trucks are hard to steer, you can’t see out the back, and the plow on the front end is heavy and affects handling. It’s the professionals we have in them that keep them on the road.”Mike Aldrich, head mechanic for road and bridge, credits the guys behind the wheel for their safety record. He said what the trucks need most is routine maintenance.

“We do a lot of hydraulic repairs, hoses and stuff,” said Aldrich. “These heavy plows have such a massive amount of hydraulics on them. But those are usually quick fixes and we get them back on the road.”Another problem that plow drivers deal with every day comes from the very people they are trying to help. Careless motorists are probably their biggest obstacle out on the road, McKiernan said. “I’ve been driving in a white-out so bad you think you are going backwards, and some guy will pass me in an SUV going 60,” said McKiernan. “People need to slow down out there.”The stories in the meeting room after a day’s work is finished often center around people driving too fast or out of control. Snowplow drivers are always on the lookout, and always drive defensively, said Bocelewatz.”Usually between eight and nine in the morning when people are in a hurry to get to work is the worst,” said Bocelewatz. “People try to pass us in a hurry. They think we can see them and a lot of times we can’t because they’re in a blind spot.”Growing and growingThe growth of Eagle County is being felt by everyone and the crew at road and bridge is no exception. With additional miles of road each year and a steady increase in traffic volume to go with it, change is a constant.”When I started 16 years ago, you could let six inches of snow go, and no one would care,” said Harris. “If it got too deep to drive up the road, then they might call. In the last 10 years, it has really changed and become a different situation.”Part of the new reality has to do with new roads, like the ones in the Miller Ranch subdivision. Of note, close to 50 percent of the Eagle District’s man hours are spent in unincorporated Edwards.

“That’s just politics. All we know is if it’s a county road, we plow it,” said Harris, who estimates that the number of combined years his guys have behind the wheel to be well into the hundreds. When people join the family at road and bridge, they tend to stay.”When we get employees we keep them,” said Higgins. “These are pretty dedicated people. They have a great attitude toward their job. They know what they have to get done and they get it done.”==========================================Road and bridge districtsEagle District: Vail Pass to Glenwood SpringsNorthwest District: Bond, McCoy and Colorado River RoadSouthwest District: El Jebel, Basalt, and Frying Pan River Road==========================================Vail, Colorado

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