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Snow, Cold Slams Gorge

Is freezing rain next?

Keep your shovels handy.

For the past week, residents of the mid-Columbia Gorge area have been digging out driveways and clearing fresh snow off their vehicles as more snow has been falling almost daily.

The first significant snowfall dropped into the Bingen-White Salmon area on Dec. 27, and the region has remained in a cold and icy grip ever since.

Approximately two feet of snow has fallen in the immediate White Salmon area, making this storm one of the heaviest snow events since 1998.

Temperatures dipped into single digits Sunday night, and the combination of cold, ice, and snow led to a decision to close schools on Monday and Tuesday.

Sgt. Bruce Brending of the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department, who had seen the results of the bad driving condition first-hand, said keeping the schools closed was the right decision.

"It would be foolish to even try," Brending said on Sunday morning, while at the scene of yet another vehicle in a ditch.

Brending said that the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department had responded to approximately a dozen calls regarding cars that had slid off the roadway over the New Year's Day weekend, Jan. 1-4.

Dale Palmer, superintendent of the White Salmon Valley School District, said safety for the students was the primary concern. He pointed out that the sidewalks near the schools were covered with deep snow, which would have forced kids to walk on the roadway.

"We'll get the kids back as soon as it's safe to get them here," Palmer explained.

Palmer added that the weather forecaster the school employs sees more snow coming.

"We have two built-in snow days. I don't know if that is going to be enough," Palmer said. "We're anxious to get kids back to school and get rolling, but in reality, we might not have school until Friday."

More snow -- as much as 6-8 inches -- was in the forecast for Tuesday and Wednesday. Freezing rain was also expected as the weather begins to warm up a bit.

That report caused even more concern, as many residents of the area well remember February 1996, when a heavy snowfall was quickly followed by warm temperatures. That resulted in serious flooding, with highways, railroad tracks, and some city streets in Bingen completely awash.

"If we get rain on top of this snow, we could have a real interesting one," Brending said.

"We're concerned about that possibility and preparing for that," said Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel. "They're calling for Wednesday and Thursday to be in the 50s in Portland and raining. We'll see. The difference is, the snow here now has a lower moisture content than in 1996, but we're thinking about it."

"We're hoping it doesn't warm up too quick," added Klickitat County Sheriff Chris Mace. "We're all just kind of bracing to see what the next system is bringing in the next couple of days."

Prigel said that for now, there were not any serious problems in Bingen.

"It's been relatively smooth. The roads are passable, but the parking areas are a mess," Prigel said. "Our guys have been putting in overtime hours for plowing."

As of Monday, the Klickitat Public Utility District had not suffered any major power outages, although power was temporarily out from Northwestern Lake north to Trout Lake on Monday morning. The outage affected 1,140 customers in BZ Corner, Gilmer, Husum, and Trout Lake, but the duration was relatively short: for most of the customers, it lasted for less than three hours.

"One of our lines broke," said Ron Schultz, the PUD's White Salmon branch manager. "This is the first outage in this storm. We might be in for more fun later. We'll watch the weather and try to keep the lights on."

The Skamania Public Utility District did not fare as well, however. Virtually all of Skamania County was without power from 11:15 p.m. Monday until 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.

"BPA has a fuse that blew in Camas, and in trying to reroute it, it caused a power surge," said Chris Iobst, auditor for the PUD. "That blew more fuses, and the whole county was out of power at the wrong time and the wrong temperature."

Ace Hardware reported heavy sales of items to combat the weather: tire chains, ice melt, snow shovels, and long-handled car window scrapers were among the items that sold out within two days over the weekend. Whether the store can get more in depends on whether a supply truck can make it over Satus Pass later in the week.

Trains on the main Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad line that passes through Bingen had their own problems, as crews had to deal with packed snow jamming switches. On New Year's Day, trains were required to stop before entering passing sidings, and a crewman would have to physically clear ice and snow away from switch mechanisms.

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