LA GRANDE — Tesmond Hurd likens the view he sees each night plowing the roads to a scene from “Star Wars.”
Hurd is part of the maintenance crew with the Oregon Department of Transportation in La Grande. In summer months, he works on road improvement and repair projects such as chip seals.
In winter, he commands a nearly 30-ton piece of machinery rumbling down Interstate 84.
It’s not hard to understand the comparisons between spaceships and the industrialized behemoths ODOT uses to clear roadways.
At highway speeds, snow resembles trailing stars after the Millennium Falcon engages hyperdrive. The plow even has wings — blades attached to the side of the vehicle that extend just shy of 24 feet for clearing snow. As it’s pushed away, the snow forms wakes like those of a naval ship pulling into port. A pair of bright green laser pointers — which keep track of where the wings are — pierce the blanket of night.
Hurd said his job is to drive in the worst weather conditions every night.
On busy nights, when the snow pours unrelentingly down, Hurd will spend the entire evening behind the wheel. His only communication once his shift starts might be through the CB radio, which has a local channel for ODOT operators in the field, and a channel for relaying information to dispatch about road conditions.
The snow was falling fast — though milder than previous nights.
“When it’s snowing like this, there will be lots of calls for crashes or disabled vehicles,” Hurd said.
Hurd drove past a semi that appeared to be disabled along I-84, and alerts dispatch.
Snowplows are sentries for ODOT capable of calling in disabled vehicles — or unchained semis.
According to the Oregon State Police Capt. Stephanie Bigman, 32 violations and warnings were issued in Oregon between Jan. 1 and Jan. 6 for commercial vehicles that did not carry or use chains when required. A number of those violations occurred along I-84 in Northeastern Oregon, which had been closed on Jan. 5, at one point, due to unchained semis blocking the route at Cabbage Hill near milepost 224.
The fine for unchained commercial vehicles is $880 per occurrence, up from $440. The change occurred in September 2021.
“Commercial trucks not chaining up when required is a major contributing factor for freeway closure that occur in the mountain passes of Eastern Oregon,” Tom Strandberg, public information officer for ODOT, said. “Once a truck starts sliding or jackknifes it can quickly block lanes and close down the freeway. It can then take several hours to get the proper tow service providers to respond to the scene and move the disabled vehicle. Depending on the location and duration of the closure, it can impact hundreds or thousands of motorists.”
According to an ODOT press release, the estimated cost of delays caused by trucks failing to follow Oregon chain laws is more than $8 million a year — to the motor carrier industry and other highway users.
“When it comes to chaining, I don’t chain — I don’t want to hurt anybody — I park it,” said Samuri Schaffer, a truck driver of more than 15 years. “I don’t deal with it until they take off the chain laws. There’s so much liability on us.”
Schaffer stated the liabilities for truck drivers can be severe if they are involved in any accident, so he avoids the issue entirely by keeping off the road.
If a truck is involved in a crash where failure to use chains is a factor, there could be other costs for the motor carrier, according to a press release from ODOT.
A Sisyphean taskInside, the cockpit of the snowplow is kept blisteringly warm. It isn’t for comfort — Hurd admits that the temperatures can be incredibly warm inside the snowplow; enough that he sheds jackets and layers, and opens the window. It was below freezing outside, and getting colder.
“It will get way too hot in here,” Hurd said. “I usually crack them about six inches. You can see the snow on the windshield — it will just freeze there, and it will keep building and building until you have to get out and clear the windshield every few miles.”
Already an hour into his shift, the windshield had begun to amass ice on its corners. The windshield wipers squeaked incessantly as they battle the accumulating snow. If not addressed, the windshield will freeze over until just a small circle of visibility remains. At least one secondary headlight was completely encased in ice; the other was encased in snow.
Hurd resigned to leaving the wipers on despite the noise — a chirping metronome for a long night.
It’s a Sisyphean task to keep the roads clear during heavy snowfall. It is only the beginning of winter.
Plow operators are assigned sections of the interstate and state roads to keep clear. Mostly, they handle I-84, but they also are responsible for keeping Island Avenue clear. Sometimes, they pair up when conditions are poor, running tandem down the freeway and clearing it all in one fell swoop.
“You can only plow so fast, so you just keep making laps and keep plowing and plowing,” Hurd said of plowing during heavy snowfall. “Hopefully you don’t have to close the freeway down.”
When it’s snowing, the plow operators lay down sand; in drier conditions, salt. It’s to help with traction, and improve the roadways. Hurd said that he had seen firsthand the immediate impact sand can have on stuck motorists.
ODOT keeps barns full of both materials for plows to refill. They also fulfill a secondary purpose of increasing the weight of the snowplow, increasing its individual traction capabilities. It is difficult to extricate a snowplow that has been disabled by the snow.
As well, the Observer previously reported on a possible shortage of ODOT snowplow operators. Craig Slipp, the manager for ODOT Region 5 — the area encompassing most of Eastern Oregon — told the Observer that there were 12 open positions for road maintenance positions. Hurd said that his department in La Grande was fully staffed, however.
Hurd said there were a number of reasons why ODOT makes the decision to close the interstate. Recently, unchained semis had closed down the freeway, as did snow drifts formed by heavy winds and fresh snow, creating whiteout conditions on the interstate.
“If we can’t see and we’re running off the road,” Hurd said, “we’ll make the call to close it.”