Freezing fog, icy roads and numerous crashes Thursday morning, Nov. 17, prompted the shutdown of much of Interstate 84 in Eastern Oregon.
The conditions also caused slick city streets and school delays and closures. Pendleton Public Works Director Bob Patterson put it this way: “Folks, winter is here.”
The Oregon Department of Transportation closed the freeway eastbound between Pendleton and La Grande and westbound from Baker City to near Pendleton. The wintry conditions also lead to the closure of Highway 204.
ODOT reopened the state routes at 11:54 a.m. The department urged travelers to expect winter conditions and drive with extra caution.
Oregon State Police responded to a slew of wrecks The closest twisted 18-wheeler tip-over to Pendleton occurred at 3:45 a.m. on I-84 at milepost 214 east of the city. The others were in the mountains.
“The other semi tip-overs were up top,” OSP Lt. Karl Farber said.
Several troopers were still out, so the information wasn’t available at the time.
Pendleton and Pilot Rock schools started two hours late because of the conditions, while Athena-Weston and Helix schools closed for the day.
The city of Pendleton responded quickly to the icy roads.
“We handle it the same way we always have,” Patterson said. “We purchase gravel in the summer, store gravel, we have several trucks with spreaders, the city of Pendleton does not do snow removal, we put rock chips out on the road.”
The rock chips, Patterson said, help provide traction on the roads but do not replace the need for residents to winterize their vehicles and consider vehicles with better traction devices.
City officials depend on weather predictions to assess road conditions in coming days, but sometimes adverse weather conditions emerge without warning.
“There was no forecast of ice in the morning when we left yesterday afternoon, so this caught our staff off-guard, too,” Patterson said. “When we got in this morning we shifted gears and started to look at road conditions and ice considerations.”
He also gave some advice about driving on Pendleton’s hills.
“We do typically get freezing rain situations, if you are coming up to an intersection that has a downhill element, make sure no cars are coming downhill, because they may need to go right through that intersection,” he said. “Defensive driving is of the utmost importance.”
The Columbia Basin was less affected than higher elevations of Umatilla County.
“I just got back in the office from driving around,” Hermiston Assistant City Manager Mark Morgan said at about noon. “It’s kind of wet. That’s about it. We’re doing good over here.”
Umatilla also largely escaped the morning ice capades.
“When I got up this morning at 6, it was 32,” Umatilla Public Works Director Scott Coleman said. “There was a little ice, but nothing bad.”
Coleman’s assistant checks the streets at 5 a.m., so if extra crew might be needed, he can make the call.
The National Weather Service issued a severe winter weather alert the afternoon of Nov. 16 and repeated it later that day and early on Nov. 16. The advisory warned of freezing fog until noon on Nov. 17. Visibility was expected to be limited to 1 or 2 miles in the foothills of the Blue Mountains. This low visibility and frost on bridges produced hazardous driving conditions.
“Interestingly this evening we may see, probably not to the same degree as last night and this morning, some patchy freezing fog along the foothills for this evening,” Ann Adams, NWS assistant forecaster, said. “Further east and south, more up into the Blue Mountains, we have freezing fog and a light freezing drizzle. In the overnight hours, it’ll be more in the mountains than in the foothills.”
Adams said it’s still going to be cold, with lows around 20 expected.
“Saturday morning we’re expecting even colder,” she said, “in the teens from Pendleton to Milton-Freewater.”