A year ago, 28 PVC pipes were vital to the Imbler Rural Fire Department.

Because of heavy snowfall in the Imbler-Summerville area, Imbler firefighters installed the four-foot plastic pipes, which have black tips, next to all of their city’s hydrants to allow them to easily be identified in the event of a fire. Imbler Rural Fire Department Chief Mike Barry said the markers were needed because it was impossible to keep the fire hydrants clear of snow.

“We would clear snow around hydrants and a few minutes later they would be completely covered (by windblown snow),” Barry said.

This winter, the fire department’s PVC markers are collecting dust at the station. The winter of 2017-18 has been far milder than last year’s, meaning that people like Barry have less to worry about.

“It has been a relief. I sleep much better this year,” Barry said.

The Imbler fire chief noted that last winter he was constantly evaluating the availability of cleared routes and wondering how his crews would be able to make it into areas with snow-clogged roads. He noted that there were 11 days in the 2016-17 winter when only Highway 82 and Hunter Road were open in the area his department serves.

Roads have been clear virtually all of this winter. How mild has it been compared to a year ago?

National Weather Service statistics indicate that La Grande received 13.1 inches of snow in December 2016 and 6 inches in December 2017. The National Weather Service’s January statistics indicate that La Grande received 4 inches of snow through the first 12 days of 2017 but has not received measurable snow yet in 2018.

The temperature difference is also noteworthy. In December 2017, high temperatures averaged 36.1 degrees and the average low temperature was 20.3 degrees. In December 2016, the average high temperature was 31.9 degrees and the average low was 14.6 degrees.

Temperatures this month have also been much warmer than a year ago, using data from Jan. 12 to Jan. 16 as a representative sample. During this time frame, the average high was 48.8 degrees and the average low was 32.2 degrees. The average high and low for the same five-day period a year ago was 22.8 degrees and 2 degrees.

Jim Smith, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Pendleton, said that conditions have been mild this winter because of an upper ridge of high pressure.

“It is dominating the region,” he said.

The ridge of high pressure has trapped cold air at lower elevations and created an inversion effect in which there are warmer temperatures at higher elevations.

See complete story in Wednesday's Observer