Dangerous snow-laden, falling trees keep U.S. 2 closed

A view of snow-laden trees bending toward U.S. Highway 2. (Photo: WSDOT)

STEVENS PASS -- With dozens of snow-laden trees still slumped over the highway, the Washington State Department of Transportation announced Monday it is keeping U.S. Highway 2 closed from Stevens Pass to the west end of Leavenworth.

Skiers can still get to the summit from the west side, but cannot continue east toward Leavenworth. Through traffic must detour via U.S. 97 Blewett Pass and Interstate 90 Snoqualmie Pass, the WSDOT said.

“At least four more large trees crashed to the roadway overnight, and there is no way to estimate a reopening time,” Washington State Department of Transportation regional administrator Dan Sarles said. “Given what has happened at the pass, this is the right decision to make for the safety of drivers and our workers.”

The forecast Monday night called for clear and cold conditions, which meant snow would freeze to branches and trees would not be able to shed their snow load. Wednesday’s forecast calls for another eight inches of snow at Stevens Pass.

“The snow’s been building up in the trees for the last three or four storms,” said WSDOT technician Mike Moreshead. “Usually it will shed after a foot of snow or so, but it’s all been building up. The conditions were just right that it froze to the limbs.”

Moreshead said he has never seen conditions like these in his career.

“I’ve been in the mountains all my life around here,” Moreshead said.  “I’ve cut timber for 30 years. Once in a while you’ll see places in small areas where it’s done this, but it’s just kind of the perfect-storm type deal."

Clearing these trees is such a tall task for crews that it’s out of their hands.

“We tried keeping up with it for the first couple of days, but it got to the point where you were putting yourself in danger to cut the one that you knew was bad, because there was another one behind it coming,” Moreshead said.

“You don’t want to be up here,” Moreshead said.  “It’s a mountain pass and people can get hurt bad.”

If the dangerous conditions continue, WSDOT plans to bring in a large helicopter to attempt blow snow from the trees on Wednesday.

Elsewhere in the state, crews were preparing for a snowy Christmas Day morning. In Mason County, weather forecasters predicted up to six inches of snowfall in the Hood Canal area. The west side of Hood Canal is more likely to see snow accumulation. WSDOT maintenance crews were to be out treating the roads and plowing snow as necessary.

Conditions at Snoqualmie Pass were good Monday; however, up to 10 inches of new snow was forecast for Christmas Day. Extra crews are standing by to ensure I-90 remains open and ready for heavier-than-usual traffic.

WSDOT hyperlinks:

 U.S. 2 Stevens Pass conditions: http://www.wsdot.com/traffic/passes/stevens/default.aspx

Snoqualmie Pass conditions: www.wsdot.com/traffic/passes/snoqualmie/default.aspx

Winter driving: www.wsdot.wa.gov/winter/

WSDOT flickr photos: www.flickr.com/photos/wsdot/