Snow removal a way of life for hardcore contingent
Blower operator Chad Sudtell clears Chamonix Road in Tahoe Donner Monday. A weekend storm left several feet of snow in higher elevations around Truckee.|Josh Miller
For the 25 men and women who make up the Town of Truckee’s snow removal crew, big storms such as last week’s mean 12-hour work days until the roadways are clear.
Before Truckee’s incorporation, one of the most frequently heard complaints around town was that Nevada County was not doing a good enough job keeping the roads open. A little more than a decade later, most of the people who remember what it was like before incorporation are happy with the job the town’s public works department has done clearing the roads. But, that doesn’t mean that they don’t still get plenty of complaints.
Ron Tucker, who begins his snow clearing route in Tahoe Donner every morning at 6 a.m., gets his share of grief about Truckee residents’ primary winter annoyance – berms.
“A lot of people complain about the berms, and you know, I hate them just as much as anybody else,” Tucker said. “But the problem with doing berm removal is you don’t know what’s behind this snow. It could be railroad ties or landscaping; you could chip a driveway; you could scrap it and take off their sealant …”
Sometimes after a light snowfall, the berms don’t get to be much of an issue; however, after a powerful storm such as last week’s, Tucker often begins his route with more than a foot of wet, heavy snow on the roads.
In those conditions, just making the roads passable can be a challenge. Fortunately for the snow removal crews, the Town of Truckee has invested in some of the latest and best equipment to help them get the job done.
Tucker works his Tahoe Donner route in a Caterpillar loader capable of pushing massive amounts of snow from the roadway to the side of the road, where later a large blower will come along and blow the snow off of the roadway.
The loaders, being very maneuverable pieces of equipment, are ideally suited for clearing neighborhoods and intersections, whereas the combination plow and sand trucks are generally used to keep the main arterials and roadways open and clear for traffic and emergency vehicles.
On storm days, Riley Morrison has his sand truck on the road by 4 a.m., and like the other equipment operators, he’s in for a full 12 hours of plowing and sanding, while dodging parked cars, oncoming traffic and hurried drivers.
Morrison circles the Brockway route, portions of Brockway Road that the town took over from Caltrans after the completion of the state Route 267 Bypass.
He plows the hard-to-reach center of the road and sands intersections, dips and curves.
Passing through Commercial Row and turning around at state Route 89 north is more a game of thread-the-needle than snow removal.
“I like it when people wait for me. Some places get pretty tight,” said Morrison, as he weaves between a parked SUV jutting out into the road and a driver patiently stopped, allowing him to squeeze through.
“Of course everybody’s got a $30,000 or more SUV, so the stakes are high,” he said.
Heading back down his route, Morrison spots what will be the highlight of his morning. Angling off of Brockway road lie a few hundred feet of a dead end street layered with about two feet of untouched powder.
“Fresh tracks!” Morrison cries as he charges down the section of road, sending a wave of snow off to his right.
For Morrison, a former ski patroller at Homewood Mountain Resort, the change of seasons and the arrival of snowstorms means he’ll have work. And the 12 hours go by fast when there is snow to plow, he said.
All together, the town has eight loaders, seven blowers, four sand trucks and one grader with which to keep Truckee’s roadways open. And each piece of equipment comes with it’s own challenges.
According to Tucker, the drivers of the big blowers have to worry about catching cars, mailboxes, garbage cans and all sorts of other items left in the town’s right of way in the blower blades, all of which can cause damage to the blower and hurl dangerous projectiles in unpredictable directions.
“It’s bad because people park their cars out because they don’t want to shovel their driveway or snowblow their driveway, and if we by chance hit them during the wintertime, the town’s not liable for any damage done to them,” Tucker said.
Especially dangerous, according to blower operators, are decorative rocks that people have placed near the road. Already this year, operators have had incidents in which large rocks have been violently hurled by blowers, one striking another piece of equipment and narrowly missing the operator, while another was flung more than 50 feet into a garage, knocking the garage door off its tracks.
“Those rocks are just like cannon balls,” said Administrative Assistant Tamara Blanton. “We’re really discouraging people from placing them anywhere near the road.”
While maneuvering large pieces of heavy equipment through the narrow streets of Truckee’s neighborhoods is always a challenge, sometimes the most difficult aspect of the job is dealing with the public.
“In the past we’ve had people coming out and throwing gas cans at you and they throw shovels at you. You know, you try to deal with the public as best you can out here, but you never know what you’re going to get when you open that loader door,” Tucker said, adding that snow crews will get the police involved in situations where they feel threatened.
“All in all,” he said, “people are pretty nice and they’re used to living up here, but some people, I guess they just really hate berms.”
Though berms seem to draw the most ire, the snow removal crews also hear complaints about not plowing the streets enough.
“No matter how many times a day you plow a street, people will say once is not enough, and then if you start plowing them twice a day they say twice is not enough,” Tucker said. “And there are a lot of people who are happy and know about what we’re doing, but there still are people who call and complain, and they just don’t know what we’re doing. So it’s kind of tough.”
Complaints like these can wear on the crews, which often work 12-hour shifts for seven days a week, until the snow has been cleared and the roads are ready for the next big storm.
“This is actually a really fun job,” Tucker said. “Just after so many hours you start wearing thin. Because here you’re out amongst people and you’ve got an 18-ton piece of equipment, you’ve got to concentrate all the time on what you’re doing.
“And you know, we spend 12 hours doing this, from six in the morning ’till six at night, and then I’ve got to go home and snowblow just like everybody else. And that’s one thing I hate doing is going home and doing more snow removal.”