Malheur County braces for series of winter snow storms

ONTARIO – State transportation crews are bracing for a major winter storm to roll over Malheur County and deliver between three and six inches of snow this weekend.

And the storm could disrupt life around Treasure Valley for a couple of days. High school sports schedules and other events could be affected.

For the most needy, prolonged bad weather could pose a shelter for food and other necessities.

Highway crews are poised to make sure area roads stay open.

“Our crews are working to make sure salt is in the salt sheds and plows are ready to go,” said Tom Strandberg, a spokesman for the state Transportation Department in La Grande.

Paul Woodworth, the agency’s district manager in Ontario, said his crews are expecting six and 12 inches of snow across an area that includes Malheur, Harney and Grant counties.

“Some spots we might get more, like up by Austin Junction (in Grant County),” said Woodworth.

Woodworth said the storm is expected to hit most of the state and that could create challenges.

“When that happens, we may have to go to other places and send resources. If those kinds of things happen it leaves us a little short-handed. No one has called for that, but it is always a possibility,” said Woodworth.

The weekend snow event is forecast to begin Friday with light snow in the afternoon followed by a steady snow overnight. Occasional snow flurries are expected through Saturday and Sunday across the Treasure Valley, according to Les Colin a senior meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Boise.

“It looks like there will be about four inches total from tonight through Sunday,” said Colin.

Colin said the northernmost part of Malheur County and all of Baker County are forecast to receive six to 12 inches of snow.

“Going through that pass in Baker – Ladd Canyon and Meacham – there is going to be a lot of snow and a lot of wind,” said Colin.

Colin said based on the latest forecast Friday afternoon, another snow storm will roll across the region Monday afternoon.

“There is going to be quite a bit of snow, as a lot of moisture will be coming in. Next weekend is going to be like this weekend,” said Colin.

Colin said winds that push storms in from the north next week are quite rare and “unusual” to see in mid-February.

Strandberg agreed the region usually encounters large snow events earlier in the year.

“It is certainly out of the ordinary from what we’ve seen this winter. Usually we get most of our events in December and January,” said Strandberg.

Woodworth said the Ontario transportation office will deploy six trucks, including a deicer, when the snow hits. The priority, he said, is keeping Interstate 84 open. Next in line, he said, will be U.S. Highway 20, U.S. Highway 95 and U.S. Highway 395.

“During the winter, we run a day shift and a night shift. They are scheduled an eight-hour shift but if they are getting hammered they will work up to a 12-hour shift,” said Woodworth.

Woodworth said crews will use salt on I-84 and U.S. 95 to battle slick conditions. The rest of the roads in the district will receive a mixture of salt and deicer, said Woodworth.

Woodworth said his plows would cover the interstate from Ontario to Weatherby. He said there are plow crews also stationed at Vale, Juntura and Burns.

Woodworth said he is taking the coming storm seriously. He said his only worry is if the storm triggers high winds.

“If we had 30-mile-an-hour winds that could change the game because we’d be dealing with drifts and we don’t have snow blowers,” said Woodworth. Woodworth said the nearest snow blowers are stationed in La Grande.

The coming storm compelled several local and state high schools to modify their schedules for basketball games.

Vale switched a Friday game with Irrigon to the day before because of the storm threat.

The Ontario games with Mac-Hi set for Saturday afternoon in Ontario were still on as of Friday afternoon, though the times have been moved up, said Gary Robertson, Mac-Hi athletic director.

However, Robertson said there might be a chance that only the varsity teams will play in Ontario so the Pioneers can “drive back when it is still sunlight.”

Heavy snowfall could impact the community’s most vulnerable including seniors and the homeless.

But Lonni Thomas, the executive director for Malheur Council on Aging and Community Services, said her agency would still deliver meals to senior who are homebound. Thomas said volunteers from local churches deliver meals.

For homeless, Ontario no longer operates a shelter. In emergency circumstances, some can be provided motel rooms, according to Heather Echeveste, housing programs manager for Community in Action in Ontario, said there are “some options for providing emergency temporary shelter services for people who might need it.”