A powerful snowstorm — perhaps the worst in years — walloped Clark County on Thursday, causing more than 100 car crashes, early school closures and other havoc across the region.
At least one person died in a massive wreck involving 28 vehicles on Interstate 5 near state Highway 502. That and a spate of other collisions completely shut down both directions of the freeway for much of the morning. Wrecks piled up around the county all day. Emergency dispatchers logged between 100 and 130 weather-related accident calls.
Virtually all local school districts closed early Thursday, and they remain closed Friday. (See a full list of school closures.) Afternoon and evening events were canceled across the county. Garbage trucks weren’t able to complete their routes and collection is canceled for Friday. Road crews scrambled to keep up as snow continued to fall into the afternoon and evening.
“It’s a fairly significant storm, and we’re doing our best to stay on top of it,” said Jeff Mize, a Clark County Public Works spokesman.
And Thursday’s storm is just the beginning, forecasters say.
Clark County residents can expect continued snowfall Friday, with it becoming heavier tonight and Saturday, said Andy Bryant of the National Weather Service in Portland. The accumulation may stick around through Sunday.
“There’s a lot of question about when we’ll transition (to rain). Across Clark County, it’s likely to happen at different times. The closer you are to the Columbia River Gorge, the more likely it is to stay below freezing,” Bryant said.
A storm of this magnitude is rare for February, said Steve Pierce, a Salmon Creek resident, Columbian weather blogger and president of the Oregon chapter of the American Meteorological Society. He said it was the most significant February snowstorm and arctic blast to hit the Portland-Vancouver metro area since 1996.
On Thursday, the county sent out 30 vehicles to plow and spread gravel on roads, Mize said. Crews had also applied de-icer earlier in the week, he said, as did workers in the city of Vancouver. The city has 17 vehicles of varying sizes fitted with plows and de-icers.
Snow blanketed all of Clark County, but the heaviest snow appeared to fall in the northern part of the county. The storm was dumping an estimated 1 to 2 inches per hour for much of the afternoon, according to the weather service. The brunt of that fell between Ridgefield and Woodland, according to the weather service.
Chuck Green, who lives in the Mount Vista area north of Washington State University Vancouver, took his work home early around lunch time. By 3 p.m., he said there were 6 inches of snow on the ground, “and it’s still coming down.” Richard Dyrland, whose home is east of Ridgefield, reported up to 6 inches on the ground Thursday afternoon. The snow deepened as the day went on. At 7 p.m., the National Weather Service recorded 9.5 inches in Ridgefield.
“As soon as you get just north of Vancouver, the snow gets much heavier,” Dyrland said.
Green wasn’t the only commuter who left the office early Thursday. Portland-area freeways were already jammed early in the afternoon. And a larger-than-usual number of Clark County commuters took the bus in and out of Portland, hoping to avoid driving entirely, said C-Tran public affairs manager Jim Quintana.
As people left early, the agency began planning for extra service and shuttles to get riders home, he said.
“Today it started out one way, and it changed to something else,” Quintana said. “So you’re constantly trying to adjust and meet demand.”
Several C-Tran routes were put on snow routes. Buses also deployed their automatic “instachains” installed in recent years.
The storm also interrupted air travel. Many flights at Portland International Airport were canceled or delayed.
Conditions may become even more hazardous over the weekend if the snow becomes freezing rain.