From center to the edge Placer County's snow removal operations keep the roadways clear

A couple of inches of snow in the Tahoe Basin isn’t a big deal. A couple inches in Auburn can be a calamity. Despite staffing, training, equipment and planning, Mother Nature ultimately rules the day.

When the snow falls, the county’s plows, graders and blowers come out and staff is charged with moving the white stuff off hundreds of miles of roadway. The county has one of the largest snow removal operations in the state and, depending on the breadth, severity and timing of the storm, crews from the Department of Public Works and Facilities can be plowing from Auburn to the Nevada state line.

During a storm, roads will get plowed at least once in a 24-hour period, twice if necessary. But with 700 miles of roads that can potentially receive snow in a cold, low-elevation storm, snow removal sometimes is a herculean effort. The California Department of Transportation, Caltrans, is responsible for snow removal on state highways. Placer County is responsible for almost all of the rest of its roads.

Snow blowers typically come out after the plows have created berms at the side of the road. The blowers then "blow" the snow further off the road.

Up to 250 miles of road will get snow in an average storm, including 140 miles in the Tahoe Basin. Equipment is staged in the Tahoe area, Serene Lakes, Colfax, Auburn and Foresthill. Staff is sometimes shuffled around and sent up to the Tahoe area in anticipation of an approaching major winter storm. They’ll travel up the hill before the storm hits because Donner Summit can be impassible during a major storm.

The Tahoe area is divided into five snow removal zones. This Kings Beach street is in Zone 4.

When large storms hit and linger, and dump a lot of snow over the course of several days or even weeks, crews move to 24-hour shifts: 12 hours on and 12 hours off. By staying in seasonal accommodations in the Tahoe area, plow drivers and other equipment operators work these long shifts to get the roads cleared and then keep them that way.

Snow plow drivers climb aboard their rigs in the dark to begin their first runs.

The size of the storm, how long it lingers and the timing of its arrival will dictate the response that’s needed.

“It’s all about the timing,” said Road Maintenance Division Engineering Manager Kevin Taber. “For a predicted big storm, we rearrange schedules and send people up the hill to augment the Tahoe and Serene Lake crews. Sometimes a storm that’s predicted to dump in the basin will stall on the west side of the summit. Sometimes we get hammered on both sides. Regardless, we have to be flexible enough to perform in all areas.”

Because storms don't always occur during normal business hours, plowing often takes place at night.

Graders – large plows with an angled blade to push snow to one side – are the workhorses in the snow removal operations. They push what is often referred to as “Sierra cement” – snow with high water content – from the center of the roads to the edge. Some of these plows are equipped with a berm gate, a device that when dropped briefly stops snow from being pushed to the edge of the road. Plow drivers try to lower the gates at every driveway to prevent a large berm from forming. However, the devices can be temperamental, are easily damaged by heavy, wet snow and regularly need repair. Use of the gates will reduce, but not eliminate the berm. Gate effectiveness decreases as the snow depth increases and as a rule of thumb, snow gates will reduce the size of a driveway berm by about half.

Operating with all wheels chained and an abundance of lights, graders are the first to respond when it snows.

As the graders continue to push the snow to the edge of the road, the roads narrow. When the plows create enough of a snow bank at the edge of the road, the blowers come out to blow the snow off the edge of the road and into the county’s snow storage right of way. Most roads have 10 to 20 feet of county right of way beyond the edge of the pavement.

Keeping equipment running and repaired when it’s subjected to cold and wet weather, in addition to sand and salt, is an arduous and full-time job for the county’s fleet services mechanics. While the county strives to regularly purchase new equipment, it still must maintain its aging equipment. When a piece of snow removal equipment simply dies from old age, it usually has salvageable parts that the county can use to keep similar equipment running.

A retired plow (top) sits in an equipment "graveyard." Non-working equipment is kept for parts that are salvaged for use in working equipment. Harsh conditions take their toll on equipment, requiring regular maintenance during the winter months.

The purchase of equipment is part of normal budgeting, but the specialized devices are expensive. A recently purchased snow blower cost more than half a million dollars and replaced a blower that was manufactured in 1972. In all, the county operates 37 pieces of snow removal equipment: nine plow and sanders, 12 blowers and 16 graders.

This is the reel on a snow blower. This machine is actually five years old but shows light wear due to four consecutive years of drought, which produced little snowfall.

Sand has traditionally been used to increase traction on roadways. However in the Tahoe Basin, sand equates to sediment and sediment usually ends up in the lake. The loss of Lake Tahoe’s clarity is attributed in large part to the fine sediments that have run unchecked into the water. Road crews spread sand judiciously, but not during active snow storms because the sand would just be plowed off. Following Caltrans’ lead, road crews use sand that meets hardness and durability requirements and is less prone to being ground into fine sediment.

Placer County has never used a lot of granular salt to keep snow and ice from freezing and sticking to the roadway. Granular salt tends to quickly get pushed off the roadway, which then requires more salt to be applied. Road crews have begun using a brine solution in areas that are notorious for icing. Brine, which uses far less salt, adheres better to the road than granular salt and is more effective.

Snow removal equipment warms up in a yard on Donner Summit.

Placer County offers a wealth of winter activities, whether it is alpine or Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, sledding or simply sitting next to the fire and watching the snowflakes fall. With common sense, patience and simple preparations, getting to the snow can be a safe and enjoyable experience.

Caltrans highway information: 800-427-7623

Here are some Caltrans websites on winter travel:

Story produced by the Placer County Communications and Public Affairs Office

Written by: Robert Miller

Photography: Erik Bergen and Placer County Roads

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