People called it “snowmageddon,” and longtime Whatcom County residents said the first week of February 2017 was the worst winter storm they had endured in 30 years or more, the product of a weather phenomenon that’s unique to Whatcom County.
“It seemed like it never stopped,” said Steve Banham, director of public works for the City Lynden, one of the hardest-hit communities in Whatcom County.
For several days in early February, frigid air roared south from the Fraser River Valley of British Columbia, blasting across the agricultural fields of northern Whatcom County. When that cold air collided with a moisture-laden warm front chugging east over the Pacific Ocean, the result was snow, and lots of it – up to 3 feet in some lowland areas. Schools were closed for a week, thousands of people were left without power, dozens of car wrecks were reported and snowplow crews worked around the clock to keep main roads clear.
That normally rare “over-running” of two weather systems is notably specific to Whatcom County, said Mike McFarland, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Seattle.
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“We’ve had several of those this winter, no doubt,” McFarland said.
Millions of dollars in damage
This winter’s misery started in mid-2016, with ocean cooling off the west coast of South America, producing factors that can influence weather thousands of miles away. Meteorologists predicted below-normal temperatures and above-normal precipitation in the Northwest, and with it, a good chance of lowland snow.
After a relatively warm fall, December turned sharply cold, as average temperatures dropped 5.3 degrees below the normal average of 38.1 degrees, according to National Weather Service records. Light snow fell in many areas the night of Dec. 4-5, and by Dec. 9 some schools were closed for the first time this school year.
It was still autumn, with two weeks until the winter solstice.
By the time the spring equinox arrived March 20, Whatcom County cities and public agencies had suffered some $4.5 to $5 million in weather-related damages, said John Gargett, deputy director of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management. Claims for more than $3 million have been submitted to federal officials for reimbursement after an emergency proclamation allowed local officials to seek state aid or use private resources to address specific needs in a natural disaster.
Those figures represent only extra storm-related expenses, preventive measures such as sanding roads, overtime, or damage to public facilities or infrastructure. They don’t reflect personal losses such as car wrecks, damage from fallen trees and limbs, power outages or broken water lines, Gargett said.
“This was certainly not a typical winter for us here,” he said.
Big blast looms
Occasional snow continued to fall through December 2016. On New Year’s Day, it was 35 degrees for the annual Polar Dip at Lake Padden Park. The lake froze within a week, drawing curious residents who frolicked on the ice, skated and played hockey. Lake Whatcom iced over near the shore at Bloedel Donovan Park.
Through January, small amounts of snow fell, melted, and fell again. But the big blast started Feb. 3, with near-freezing temperatures, wind, snow and freezing rain that produced an ice storm across the north county. The Fraser Outflow kept temperatures near or below freezing for several days. Snow fell daily for the next week, and accumulations ranged from several inches in downtown Bellingham to up to 9 inches in Sudden Valley, and as much as 3 feet in places like Lynden, Everson, Sumas and Maple Falls. Winds blew at 15 to 20 mph or stronger, causing problems with blowing and drifting snow.
“It was pretty ugly,” said Scott Gelwicks, a teacher and baseball coach at Nooksack Valley High, where the backstop collapsed in high winds.
“Picture it like a chain-link fence with no holes, just filled with ice, and the wind just took it down,” Gelwicks said. The wind bent the backstop’s 4-inch steel posts and wrestled it to the ground. Gelwicks said it’s the worst winter storm he’s seen since 1996.
“This one had more impact because of the ice,” he said.
Schools closed, car wrecks rise
Schools were closed all week, and even Western Washington University, Whatcom Community College and Bellingham Technical College canceled classes or delayed opening a few days. Ferndale schools were badly hit, with 11 snows days this winter. Bellingham schools had seven.
Whatcom Transportation Authority mostly maintained its bus schedule, with only a few detours or late buses. WTA officials used Twitter to keep riders informed. Bellingham International Airport closed once briefly because of snow and ice, and several flights were delayed or canceled, officials said.
Police and fire department radio channels crackled with reports of cars wrecks, vehicles off the road, and stranded motorists. Sgt. Mark Francis of the Washington State Patrol said troopers responded to 179 calls for service on Interstate 5 and state highways within Whatcom County. Some 180 crashes were reported, many of them one-vehicle spinouts, he said.
Emergency crews challenged
Snow-removal crews from city, county and state agencies worked 12-hour shifts around the clock to keep roads clear. Some fire departments added staffing, and others took extra measures to ensure that firefighters were able to get an ambulance or fire engine to an emergency.
“Additional staff was put in place to assist with Sudden Valley in particular,” said Chief Dave Ralston of South Whatcom Fire Authority. Its Geneva fire station was staffed daily around the clock, but the tires of ambulances and engines weren’t always kept chained because snowfall was lighter and some roads were clear. In Sudden Valley, overnight crews were added and the rigs were fitted with tire chains. Because of its elevation, Sudden Valley gets more snow than areas just a few miles away.
“It was easier to have those vehicles chained up and have staff there instead of volunteers coming from home,” Ralston said, adding South Whatcom Fire saw a 30 percent rise in call volume during the storm, mostly for people who fell and broke bones or otherwise injured themselves.
“We had 107 calls for the month and our typical would be 80. The worst month was February for us. Our biggest challenge was the terrain of Sudden Valley, and abandoned vehicles,” Ralston said.
Lynden Fire Chief Gary Baar said the bad weather created a host of problems.
“When the wind blows straight down like that, all bets are off,” said Baar, who noticed a slight increase in calls for vehicle wrecks and a sharp rise in alarms for people who were hurt slipping on the ice. “It seemed like we were inundated with ground-level falls,” he said.
Endless snow plowing
Chuck Wilkins of Bellingham and Tim Coffelt of Everson are two state Department of Transportation snowplow drivers, and both worked 12-hour shifts in early February. Wilkins, with 35 years at WSDOT, works the upper reaches of the Mount Baker Highway, keeping the road open for skiers, snowboarders and other winter sports enthusiasts. Coffelt, in his third year with WSDOT, is responsible for state highways in the North County – roads such as Badger, Guide and Pole.
“The snow itself wasn’t so bad,” Coffelt said. “It was the wind and the zero visibility.”
Fierce winds hurled snow and piled it in huge drifts, including some that reached 9 feet to the roof of Lynden High School, observers said.
This winter, Wilkins’ work was critical for the drivers of some 3,000 vehicles who were stranded near Mt. Baker Ski Area on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 5, when heavy snow toppled dozens of trees across the Mount Baker Highway.
“We had three cars hit by trees, so we knew it was time,” to close the road, Wilkins said. Some 100 trees fell or leaned dangerously over the road, tilting at crazy angles under the weight of heavy snow.
WSDOT crews escorted drivers down the mountain during a lull between storms, Wilkins said.
“All of them got out, with the exception of a few essential ski area employees,” he said. “After everybody got out, that night (the snow) continued with a vengeance.”
Clearing the road took the rest of that week, and Mt. Baker Ski Area opened Feb. 10 – just in time for its signature winter event, the Legendary Banked Slalom.
Wilkson said they sawed trees apart, plowed deep snow, and set explosive charges to shake the snow off sagging tree limbs.
“I think we went through 50 bags of ANFO,” Wilkins said, referring to the industrial explosive mixture of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil.
Weeks of foul weather created heavy demand for items such as tire chains, sand, Ice Melt and snow shovels.
“Tire chains were definitely the big item,” said Mike Gadman, manager at Les Schwab Tire Center on James Street. “This year, people were more reactive. Especially late season, we saw people come in for some kind of traction device.”
After several mild winters, Hardware Sales had stored its excess inventory of winter-related items. But store merchandisers also gambled and bought extra Ice-Melt and other items – purchasing decisions that must be made months in advance of winter.
“What saved us was Ice Melt,” said floor manager Tim Walker. “We sold probably 10 semi loads of ice melt. Snow shovels, we were out only one day. That saved our bacon for sales.”
Shelters opened, food offered
Red Cross officials opened a shelter in the East Valley Regional Center near Kendall, where several thousand residents were without power over several days, said Red Cross official Kelly Hill.
“When people were without power, we served as a place to come in throughout the day for a hot meal or a place to get warm,” Hill said.
On Feb. 10, Bellingham Public Schools served hot meals for students at several sites around town. Students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals often rely on those meals as their only food source, school officials said.
Quick thaw causes damage
Temperatures rose rapidly at the end of the week, prompting flood warnings. On Feb. 9, the high temperature in Bellingham was 53 degrees, 20 degrees warmer than the 33 just the day before.
Feb. 8 produced a classic “silver thaw” in Lynden, as rain fell and then froze at night, said Banham, the public works director. “Everything got this coating of ice and then it started melting. The trees; they started to drop ice and branches,” which prompted officials to close part of Front Street.
Crews that had been plowing snow quickly turned their attention to keeping storm drains and ditches open. In Lynden, many roads have broad ditches that carry runoff, and many of those ditches were full of snow.
“Consequently, all the snow in the fields started melting and we had high flows in the ditches,” Banham said.
On Feb. 15, a torrent of water from a creek called Benson Ditch overwhelmed a culvert under North 8th Street, creating a 30-foot sinkhole and threatening to flood surrounding neighborhoods. Evacuations were considered, Banham said.
Workers toiled into the night, using pumps and filling with riprap, but the road remains closed as Lynden seeks federal funding. They’d like to expand the 36-inch pipe that ran under North 8th Street into a full box culvert that will allow fish to pass easily, Banham said. Lynden is working on a fish-friendly design with the state Department of Fish and Game, and Banham hopes federal officials will provide the $1 million required for that project.
Even as the snow and ice waned, monstrous piles of snow remained up to a month later, Banham said. Westlyn Feed even held a contest for residents to guess when the pile of snow in its parking lot would melt.
That snowpile vanished March 22, two days after the first day of spring.
The Bellingham Herald reporter Robert Mittendorf is also a volunteer firefighter with South Whatcom Fire Authority.