The forecast at the beginning of the week predicted just enough snow for a lucky few to quickly build a snowman before melting.
But by late Wednesday afternoon, a record-breaking snowfall brought much of Clark County to a standstill with enough slush, sleet and ice to build an army of snowmen.
“We were doing two, three passes on roads, plowing them, and our crews were telling us that the snow is just coming down faster than they can keep up with,” Kaley McLachlan-Burton, community engagement and inclusion manager for Clark County Public Works, said about crews in Washougal on Wednesday night.
The snowfall defied all expectations, leaving behind a mess of gridlocked traffic, stranded drivers, canceled public transit lines, and crews scrambling to clear roads for emergency responders and essential workers.
Air pressure system brought snowfall
On Wednesday, a low pressure system colliding with frigid interior air brought a thick blanket of snow to Clark County, with downtown Vancouver seeing 4.9 inches of snow Thursday morning, setting a record for the date. Amboy in north Clark County got 11.3 inches. Snow fell from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning.
“For much of Clark County, it was pretty widespread, 4 to 8 inches,” said Colby Newman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Portland. “As we move up closer to the higher elevations above Camas and Washougal, and then also up toward Yacolt and Amboy, up there we saw snowfall totals closer to a foot. And we even had one report of 18 inches.”
Southwest Washington residents aren’t strangers to snow, but they usually have several days to prepare. This week, the forecast rapidly changed in the hours leading up to the first flakes. So what happened?
The snow came as a result of a low atmospheric trough heading south on the Oregon Coast that stalled and moved inland in a matter of hours.
Newman said weather models often struggle to predict the strength of low pressure systems due to a high number of climate variables and a lack of data.
“About 12 hours ahead of the event, there was just a handful of 100 plus models that started to suggest that there was gonna be this band of heavier snow developing, but they were all over the place with where that band would be,” Newman said.
Newman said the snow fall totals are notable, but not unprecedented. He compared this year’s levels with the 2017 snow storm that saw similar precipitation levels.
Snow will likely clear up over the weekend, Newman said, as temperatures Friday will reach a high of 34 degrees after an overnight low of 18. Saturday and Sunday will be warmer, with highs of 41 and 42 degrees, respectively.
“I would expect that people are going to have snow in their yards into early next week,” Newman said. “I think it’ll still be a mess through Friday morning, but then between Friday afternoon and Saturday, a lot of roads that get direct sunlight should see conditions improve.”
Clark County and the surrounding area remain under a wind chill advisory from the National Weather Service until noon Friday.
Road work continues
Spun-out and crashed cars and jackknifed semi-trucks on Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 and packed snow and ice gridlocked much of Clark County on Thursday.
“We’ve been throwing everything at it: all the trucks, all the plows, salt, de-icer in advance of the storm,” said Tamara Greenwell, Washington State Department of Transportation communications manager.
The biggest challenge for crews was accidents on the interstate bridges causing backups and preventing crews from sprinkling salt on the roads, Greenwell said. The packed snow and ice on southbound I-205 got so severe that it was shut down from 2:30 to 3:45 p.m.
As of 3 p.m., WSDOT did not anticipate closing northbound I-205 or either span of the I-5 Bridge.
Conditions significantly improved throughout the county Thursday, but as temperatures remain below freezing what is wet now may freeze over night.
McLachlan-Burton said that the county is preparing for roads to remain icy until the temperature is above freezing. The county spent much of Thursday sanding particularly hazardous areas such as steep and curvy roads.
The worst area is in the higher elevations of Washougal. County crews will work through the night to keep roads clean and open against the snow drift caused by high winds and the light weight of the snow .
“If you don’t absolutely have to go out for an essential medical service and emergency please stay home and stay off the roads. Not only does that reduce the risk to you, but it also helps keep our roads clear for our crews to work and for first responders to access anyone who needs help,” McLachlan-Burton said.
Suspended municipal operations
As of Thursday at 2:30 p.m., C-Tran Routes 47 and 48 and The Current were suspended, C-Van was only providing transport to life-saving services and commuter routes were only providing service to the Delta Park/Vanport MAX station, in addition to some service restrictions on other routes.
For the most up to date information, go to c-tran.com.
Clark County offices and court operations were closed Thursday, as were most city operations in the area.
The city of Vancouver suspended in-person operations Thursday for nonessential workers, and asked residents to limit nonessential travel to allow space for emergency responders and road maintenance workers.
“If you must get in your car, please make sure you have a stocked emergency kit with water, food, blanket, etc.,” an advisory from the city said.
Some county offices will be closed for in-person services Friday, while Vancouver city offices and facilities will delay opening until 10 a.m.
Storm brings few power outages
There have been few weather-related power outages, according to Clark Public Utilities. Those that did occur were primarily in the northeast part of the county.
“We’re remaining vigilant and watching the weather closely,” said Dameon Pesanti, spokesman for the utility.
High winds and warming temperatures, he added, create conditions for falling limbs and tree-related outages.
Slick roads have also proved problematic for the utility’s crews. The two biggest outages the utility experienced yesterday were caused by vehicles that lost control and crashed into power poles.
If your power fails, call 360-992-8000 or visit www.clarkpublicutilities.com/outages-safety.
As of 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Evergreen Public Schools, Vancouver Public Schools, Battle Ground Public Schools, La Center School District, Camas School District, Washougal School District and Clark College had already announced they will be closed again Friday.
After school and evening activities for each district are also canceled.
King’s Way Christian Schools in Hazel Dell will also be closed.
The Ridgefield School District will have a three-hour late start and morning preschool will be closed. Hockinson School District will be on a two-hour late start, with no morning preschool, activities or Cascadia Tech bus service. Woodland is also on a two-hour late start with no Cascadia Tech bus service.
Up-to-date information on school closures can be found at www.columbian.com/school-closures/.
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.