Rogue motorists add to challenges of clearing spring storm from roadways

WYDOT operators attempting to reach stranded motorists who attempted to travel on US 14/16 under closed conditions (Wyoming Department of Transportation)

Guest Content from The Wyoming Department of Transportation

Gillette, Wyo – The spring storm that hit the northeast corner of Wyoming the weekend of April 23 was atypical for the region as it came with sixty plus mile an hour winds, record-setting inches of snow, and hundreds of stranded motorists.

What began as a much-needed spring rainstorm Friday evening quickly transitioned into an average of nineteen inches of snow in Campbell and Crook Counties by Saturday afternoon.

The National Weather Service had posted a blizzard warning several days prior to notify the public that impacts would be significant and to plan accordingly. Some took this advice, others not so much.  By daybreak on Saturday, roads were covered in slush. Rapidly declining temperatures turned sleet to snow – que the winds and blizzard conditions ensued.

Snowplow operators and troopers with The Wyoming Department of Transportation were prepared.

Prior to the peak of the storm, operators from the Sundance and Newcastle shops were in contact with the South Dakota Department of Transportation which allowed them to control traffic coming from the east and keep them off I-90 and US 212 so as to not impose on the smaller communities of Moorcroft, Sundance, and Aladdin with limited resources for stranded travelers and to allow WYDOT to clear the roads of severe drifting and stranded travelers.

Plowing under any condition can be challenging. No two storms are alike, yet WYDOT operators and troopers are familiar with the roads and the challenges they offer. They know the problem areas, where to expect drifting, and how to navigate each storm. What they didn’t know, but expected, was how the traveling public was going to respond.

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Troopers with the Wyoming Highway Patrol responded to reports of stranded motorists and gate runners. Over thirty tickets were issued to motorists who chose to ignore various road closed gates or closure notifications – a citation for being on a closed road will cost you up to $750. Many of those motorists became stuck and created an additional challenge to plow drivers.

WYDOT’s wyoroad.info site and the 511 app reported all roads in the northeast corner of Wyoming were closed due to inclement weather and visibility issues.  Anxious motorists, who ran gates, delayed openings.

Rather than focus on opening the roads, operators had to pull away from plowing and focus on removing vehicles from the road in order to complete plowing. The stranded vehicles aided in causing large drifting hazards and resulted in operators having to slow down to avoid them, which in turn caused plows to lose momentum and the power to push the wet heavy snow. This additional burden resulted in delays in opening roads.

By mid-morning Saturday, all roads in northeast Wyoming were closed. Visibility was nil. WYO 50, 59,112, 387 and US 14/16 and 212, were impacted the most. Portions of I-90 saw substantial drifting in places but was mostly affected by heavy slush. Drifts were reported to be as high as 10-15 feet and 150’ long.  Roads out of Newcastle and Sundance had miles of 3 feet deep snow, crossing the road from shoulder to shoulder in addition to drifting. Cattle along WYO 450 attempting to get out of the wind pushed up against the fence and ended up in the right of way, adding another challenge.

Fifteen plus hours of continued strong winds with snowfall and drifting with limited visibility in addition to travelers who refused to obey the law by going around closed road gates or accessing closed roads became a hazard for WYDOT operators and Troopers.

Two Troopers were stranded on WYO 59 due to the extreme conditions of the roadway.  Troopers had been dispatched to assist stranded motorists on WYO 59 and were unable to make it back to town due to the extreme drifting on the roads and plow and tow trucks not being able to get to them in the early hours of the day.

Rather than chance not getting home or back on duty in the morning, several snowplow operators chose to catch a few hours of sleep at the shop.  Most operators returned to their shops only to find their personal vehicles were drifted in and had to dig themselves out in order to get home for some rest.

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Operators returned to the roads as early as 3:00 a.m. Sunday morning. Most of the snow had subsided by then but the winds remained as well as many established drifts. Additional resources from Buffalo, Sheridan, Newcastle, and Sundance and District 2 were brought in adding V-plows, rotaries/blowers, graders and loaders to assist in punching a hole in drifts throughout the district but primarily in the Gillette, Hulett and Wright areas.

I-90 was opened by mid-day Saturday and the focus was shifted to WYO 59, US 14/16, US 212 and WYO 112.  At one point, operators found a stalled semi on US 212 and over a hundred cars and trucks behind them. US 14/16 reported over 50 stranded vehicles. All of these roads were closed to traffic. Several operators were out until 5:30 a.m. Sunday morning attempting to rescue motorists on US 14/16. Many motorists spent the nights in their vehicles.

WYDOT Webcams indicated roads were favorable if not dry which led to frustration for many motorists. What the webcams didn’t show were the areas of deep drifts and limited visibility due to the continuing winds. The webcams represent several hundred feet of roadway and not the entire section of highway. What looks good at one area may not and most often is not what the entire route looks like.  The roads remained closed for many reasons.

During a debriefing with area maintenance supervisors, crew leaders and troopers they all confirmed that in addition to the weather challenges, the traveling public made the cleanup very difficult.  They believed if they had not had to spend so much time rescuing or removing motorists from the roadway, the roads would have been opened much sooner.

When motorists bypass a road closed gate or ignore WYO511 road closure notifications, they are not only putting themselves and others in harm’s way, they are impeding on the efficiency of getting roads open so all can travel them safely.

These types of storms and their challenges are not just limited to the most recent storm. Statewide, WYDOT personnel have encountered similar situations this past snow season. I-80 encounters these issues on a regular basis, storm after storm, costing the traveling public, local businesses, commerce and WYDOT time, efficiency and money.  Efforts are continually being made by WYDOT to reduce impacts to all affected, one of those being, asking the traveling public for their cooperation.

The much needed moisture was welcomed and the State is starting to green up as a result.  There is likely to be another spring storm in the future. If there is, WYDOT asks motorists to think twice about traveling during these storms in the future. It’s best to stay put in the comforts of your home or community rather than chance a night in your car.