Near the end of February, a late-winter storm arrived and dropped snow that didn’t let up for more than 24 hours.
By the time the storm passed, it dropped more than 40 inches of snow on the city, shattering the record for new snow in a single day, and triggering an all-hands-on-deck response from the people charged with clearing roads and sidewalks.
This storm didn’t occur in Bend, however, but rather in a city that Bend often gets compared to: Flagstaff, Arizona.
Like Bend, Flagstaff is a fast-growing town near the base of the mountains that got a record-breaking amount of snow in February. Unlike Bend, the snow from the storm in Flagstaff was off streets within 48 hours, with minimal evidence that a storm had occurred at all.
“We have pretty good street operations staff here,” said Kelly Hanseth, manager at Lumberyard Brewing Co., a microbrewery located south of downtown Flagstaff.
No two winter storms are identical, and street operations staffers from both cities pointed out key differences between Bend and Flagstaff, which receives more than four times the snow Bend does in a typical winter. Still, Bend’s street operations staff has looked to Flagstaff in the past for guidance, and with both cities coming off record-breaking storms, Flagstaff’s snow response provides a case study for how Central Oregon cities can adjust to severe winter weather.
“We try to find cities of comparable size, comparable climate,” said David Abbas, the city of Bend’s streets and operations director. “We’re always trying to do a better job.”
Bend’s snowiest February in recorded history ended with a storm that dropped more than 25 inches of snow on the city over a three-day period. Abbas said the large amount of snow, combined with cold temperatures and sporadic snow after the big event proved challenging for his street operations staff.
“I think everybody knows this wasn’t a normal event,” Abbas said.
Abbas described Bend’s main roads as safe and passable by the day after the snow fell. Still, sections of ice remained near roundabouts more than a week after the initial dump, and many neighborhood streets are still dealing with packed ice.
Four days before Central Oregon’s record-breaking snowfall began, an even larger storm hit Flagstaff, a university town of around 71,000 residents in northern Arizona, near the base of the San Francisco Peaks. Because of its size and proximity to the mountains, Flagstaff often appears on lists of Bend’s peer cities. In 2015, the city of Bend produced a list of 16 “companion cities” that it would use to compare its services with. Flagstaff appeared on the list, alongside cities like Missoula, Montana and Ft. Collins, Colorado, due to its comparable size, climate and growth rate.
Brian Klimowski, meteorologist in charge for the National Weather Service’s Flagstaff office, said a low-pressure front propelled by cold air from Canada caused a storm to sweep across Arizona. Snow began falling after midnight on Wednesday, Feb. 20 and continued all day Thursday, canceling university classes and forcing local businesses to close.
On Thursday, 35.9 inches fell in Flagstaff, a city record for snowfall in a 24-hour period, Klimowski said. By the time the storm moved through Feb. 22, nearly 41 inches had fallen in the city, which Klimowski said made it the eighth-snowiest single storm in Flagstaff history.
“The longer a storm can stay in the area, the bigger the potential snowfall,” Klimowski said.
Andy Bertelsen, Flagstaff’s public works director, said his staff got to work even before the snow began falling. Like Bend, Flagstaff doesn’t use rock salt on its roads prior to snowstorms, citing the environmental impact. Bertelsen said staff begins sharping blades and putting chains on its vehicles prior to big storms. Bertelsen said Flagstaff maintains 30 pieces of snow-removal equipment, ranging from road graders to cinder trucks to pickup trucks outfitted with plows.
“We’re built to manage a major event,” Bertelsen said.
Scott Overton, streets director for Flagstaff’s public works department, said the department divides the city into two regions, east and west. Both regions are managed by a supervisor who acts as a rover, assisting where needed. Overton said each region is divided into eight zones, most of which are handled by a single plow driver. Where possible, Overton said he tries to assign drivers to areas of town they’re particularly familiar with, in some cases even areas they grew up in.
“Familiarity is key,” Overton said. “They know where the curbs are...they know which neighbors are grumpy, which neighbors are nice.”
The plows went out when there were about 3 inches of snow on the ground. As in Bend, Overton said major streets are a priority in Flagstaff. Flagstaff also prioritizes transit routes and hillside streets, as well as its downtown roads.
“Really, it’s about getting our economy up and running,” Bertelsen said.
Overton added that the goal is to have all streets, including neighborhood streets, cleared within 48 hours, a goal he said the city met in February. While businesses like Lumberyard had to close on Thursday, Hanseth said the brewery was able to open for dinner on Friday, as she and her employees were able to make it into work by then.
All told, Overton said Flagstaff employees moved 4 billion pounds of snow in five days.
“We take great pride in it,” Overton said. “We love moving snow.”
Despite the large amount of snow, Flagstaff had several advantages that Bend didn’t have during its winter storm. Flagstaff is accustomed to large snow events, as Klimowski said the city receives between 90 and 100 inches of snow per year, compared to fewer than 25 inches in a typical Bend winter.
In part because of that, Flagstaff maintains a comparatively large number of snowplows and other equipment. The city’s 30 pieces of equipment is nearly twice the number that Bend maintains, which allows the city to handle street maintenance internally, rather than relying on contractors to plow neighborhood streets, as Bend does during large snowstorms. Abbas said the city is still tabulating expenses from the snowstorm, but received invoices totaling $318,000 from contractors who worked during and after the storm.
Additionally, Bend’s rapid growth means the city has more to plow than Flagstaff — about 21 percent more roadway.
Finally, Overton said the weather complied after the storm in Flagstaff in a way that it didn’t in Bend. He said the weather in Flagstaff warmed up quickly after the storm, which made it easier to clear slush off the roads and clear off sidewalks.
“We knew we had 10 days of sunshine,” Overton said.
In Bend, more snow fell after the initial dump, which Abbas said forced plows to go back into neighborhoods they had already cleared. Bend also didn’t officially record a temperature above freezing between Feb. 26 and March 8, according to National Weather Service data.
Still, Abbas said the city is always looking for ways to improve its streets operations. After the infamous winter of 2016-17, Abbas said the city increased its overall winter operations budget to nearly $1.7 million, and added parking restrictions in certain parts of town during declared snow emergencies. He said Bend also prioritized plowing fixed transit routes more during this event.
Overton and Bertelsen said a key in Flagstaff is how well the public responds during a storm. Overton said laying out a clear set of expectations while asking drivers to stay off the roads plays a huge factor in helping the city respond to snow and ice.
Along the same lines, Chris Doty, director of Deschutes County’s road, said residents learned from the storms two years ago, and largely waited for their streets to be plowed before venturing onto the roads.
“So much of a good community-wide snow response is staying off the roads and being patient,” Doty said.
— Reporter: 541-617-7818, firstname.lastname@example.org