Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Storms blast into 2006

Ketchum buried under 34 inches of snow

Express Staff Writer

From drenching rain to heavy snow, waterlogged clouds were in a seemingly persistent state of release over southern Idaho the past two weeks, flooding low-elevation streams, exhausting snow-removal crews, and leaving a record mark on 2005.

According to the National Weather Service, 2005 was the fifth wettest year on record at Magic Valley Regional Airport in Twin Falls, and December ranked among the top four.

The site recorded 14.49 inches of precipitation in 2005, up from an average of 10.99 inches. The average precipitation in December is 1.12 inches—3.06 fell last month.

"We're trying to make up for a deficit," said National Weather Service meteorologist Jeff Hedges. "This doesn't necessarily end the drought—it will probably take a couple years of wet to put it to bed—but this is helping."

The latest storm to hit the Wood River Valley stretched to Southern California, where rain fell on the Tournament of Roses Parade for the first time in 50 years and up to 8 feet of snow hammered Mammoth Mountain ski area, in the Sierra Nevada.

Heavy rains and floods washed out numerous roads and stranded as many as 25 people in Idaho's Owyhee County. In Ketchum, 34 inches of snow buried the town between Dec. 28 and Jan. 3. Thirty-nine inches of snow fell on top of Bald Mountain in three days alone.

While the storms have brought uncontrollable, goofy smiles to the faces of skiers and snowboarders, snow-removal crews are nearing exhaustion.

Brian Christiansen, superintendent of the Ketchum Street Department, said the storms have forced crews to work 14-hour days for much of the past week.

A foot of snow buried Ketchum early Monday morning, two days after a three-day storm delivered 19.5 inches of snow.

"We've been overwhelmed," Christiansen said.

Plows ate away at towering snow banks all day Monday and Tuesday, feeding snow to a fleet of 17 dump trucks that ferried the frozen loads to a snow storage area near the River Run base of Bald Mountain.

The dump trucks, which are contracted from local landscaping and excavation companies throughout the valley for $70 an hour, have become a fixture in Ketchum over the past week, buzzing through the streets like a swarm of worker bees.

"They can haul about six loads an hour," Christiansen said.

A Ketchum snowplow slipped off Bald Mountain Road in the Warm Springs neighborhood Monday morning and became lodged on the edge a steep hill. The large machine was hauled back to safety with the help of two dump trucks and two front-end loaders.

"It just went off the road," Christiansen said. "Sometimes when there's a lot of snow you can't see the edge of the road."

The next task is smoothing out the thick ice that has made for a bumpy ride across the city's streets.

Local landscaping companies, most of which remove snow in the winter, have also had their hands full, sometimes plowing the same driveway twice in one day.

"I'm getting too old for this," joked Art Hall, the landscape maintenance supervisor for Big Wood Landscape and Maintenance, in Ketchum, which plows driveways from Warm Springs to Bellevue.

Hall said the wet snow has made for heavy work.

"A lot of snow is good for business. But in this heavy, wet snow a lot of equipment breaks," Hall said, adding that light, dry snow can be plowed about 25 percent faster.

Meanwhile, the Ketchum Fire Department is concerned about fire hydrants, many of which are buried under snow.

Mike Elle, assistant fire chief, said there are 380 fire hydrants in Ketchum, all of which have to be dug out by firefighters. He urged the public for assistance.

"We'll take all the help we can get right now," he said, adding that hydrants outside the city limits are not the responsibility of the Fire Department.

"I'd hate to see someone who spent $7 million to build a big beautiful home lose it in a fire because we couldn't" find their hydrant or cistern, he said.

Hydrants need to be cleared of snow in a 3-foot diameter with a path to the road.

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