Union County Public Works Director Doug Wright and his department worked 49 days straight last winter plowing the 600 miles of road in the county. That department felt the harshness of last winter more than most. Wright said he recently updated the county’s snow removal process — the first time since 1993 — but that’s the biggest change he plans to make for the upcoming winter season.
The threat of a repeat of last winter looms. Another La Niña, which hit the Northwest last year, might rear its ugly head, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much to the Grande Ronde Valley. Last year’s major issue was the constant wind.
Public works, emergency responders and hospital staff in the county ask the community to be prepared and be patient.
“We’ll have the same method of operation because we have the same amount of personnel and equipment,” Wright said. “Lucky for us, (the Oregon Department of Transportation) has snowplows, and once they’re done with plowing their roads, they help us. We all work together.”
Wright said his department can’t be everywhere at the same time. When there’s an emergency, first responders are the first priority. All the snow-removal resources available will assist in helping them get to their call.
La Grande Fire Department Capt. Robert Tibbetts said a major challenge for the fire department last year was the ice.
Normally, only one ambulance is required to respond to a medical call. With ice as an obstacle, sometimes two crews are necessary to safely transport patients.
Last winter also saw an increase in call volume over the previous year. During the winter months of 2015-2016, the total call volume was 646, Tibbetts said. Last winter there were 832 calls, an increase of nearly 29 percent. However, the department has seen a steady increase in call volume all year, he added.
The fire department, like the public works department, has the same amount of staff this year as it did last year.
At Grande Ronde Hospital, Emergency Room Manager April Brock said during the harsh winter they saw less people with non-emergency problems.
“The traditional primary care problems (that would usually come in) did decrease,” she said.
Both Tibbetts and Brock mentioned more people stayed home with their ailments because of the snow. If it wasn’t a true emergency, they stayed put.
Brock said her staff ran into some problems last year, but she remembers a particular case where GRH staff went above and beyond for a patient.
She recalled that when a Home Health/Hospice nurse couldn’t drive through the heavy snow to reach a patient last winter, she skied to the patient’s home.
“We saw last year what we need to do,” Brock said. “We’re used to transporting patients with limited resources.”
Last winter, Union County Emergency Services Manager JB Brock made sure the public was informed about the snowstorms. Wright’s updated snow-removal policy includes the importance of informing the public of when to stay home.
“The Northwest Weather Service communicated well (about) the impending weather last year,” JB Brock said. “We utilized the local media and used our own Facebook page (to tell the public) when the weather was going to get bad.”
He said in extreme weather, like last winter, people have to ask themselves whether their destination is a priority or not and then plan accordingly.
“Getting to school or work is important, but sometimes it’s just not possible,” Brock said. “When we advise you to stay home, then you should stay home.”
Exercise caution and common sense, he added. If there’s a snowdrift, don’t try to go through it or around it. Go back and find another route, he said.
Wright said it takes three to five days to clear the roads after a non-continuous snow event. The major roadways are plowed first, and the secondary roads come after. In a windy winter like the county saw last year, it takes public works employees much longer to maintain a clear path.
“We will get there, but it takes time,” Wright said.