It’s been a weird winter, most agree, marked by horrendous winds, highway closures and warnings. What’s the deal here?
long-timers say they’ve never seen conditions so bad as those that have developed mostly on Highway 395 in Mono County. As citizens began to wonder why 395 experienced closures several days in one week, KSRW checked in with the agencies that call the shots.
CHP Officer Jennifer Steel said the Highway Patrol officers experience conditions in the field and relay the information to Caltrans. “Caltrans has the ultimate say,” Steel explained. She described the significant visibility issues over past days which led to even Caltrans vehicles stuck in snow and wind. “Its been very dangerous,” said Officer Steel. She said the CHP and CalTrans have tried to escort motorists through difficult spots in the highway when possible.
Mammoth Police Chief Randy Schienle added that it’s his belief the CHP’s mission is to keep the highway open unless it’s absolutely necessary to close it.
Caltrans Director Tom Hallenbeck said that his agency and CHP examine conditions jointly. He said that by law, it is Caltrans’ responsibility to close the highway if it’s no longer safe. “It’s regrettable if this is an inconvenience,” said Hallenbeck, “but public safety is our main concern.”
Director Hallenbeck described recent highway conditions as “horrific.” He said that “long-time veterans of Caltrans, for 30 or 40 years, have never seen anything like this. It took one man 4 hours to travel from Highway 203 to McGee Creek, following a grader and plows.” Snow drifts of up to 5 feet created obstacle courses on that stretch of 395.
Some citizens wanted to know if state funding, a lack of manpower or equipment might be reason for more closures. “Money is not an issue,” said the Director. “We have people and equipment.” Hallenbeck offered another example of extreme conditions. He pointed to the Lee Vining area and a weather station there that recorded 109 mph winds with 140 mph gusts recently.
Mr. Hallenbeck asked the public to “please respect the closures” for their own safety. Caltrans and other agencies have pointed to the tragic death of the young Brittany Stotko of the Crowley area a couple of years back when she and her mother tried to avoid a highway closure.