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CHP defends 24-hour closure of Interstate 5 during snowstorm

Alex Rodriguez with California Towcat towed two cars in Gorman as Caltrans worked on cleaning up Interstate 5, which remained closed in both directions. It reopened later Monday.

Did the Grapevine really need to be closed for nearly 24 hours because of the snowstorm?

That was a question some motorists stranded by the closure of California’s main north-south artery were asking Monday.

The storm brought inches -- rather than feet -- of snow to Interstate 5. Several motorists noted that the scene seemed tame compared to last month’s blizzard that snowed under streets in New York and elsewhere.

“In other parts of the country, this is nothing,” said Todd Anderson, who was delayed on his way home to Shaver Lake and spent Sunday night at a roadside inn in Castaic. “I know if they would just let me up, I could make it through easy.”

But the California Highway Patrol on Tuesday strongly defended its decision, saying that the icy road surface, steep grade of the Tejon Pass and heavy post-holiday traffic volume made the Grapevine simply too dangerous to navigate.

“It’s not a decision we like to make,” CHP Officer Patrick Etchebarne said. “The thinking is ‘Let’s close it now before it gets really, really bad.’ If you don’t, you’re going to have a nightmare.”

Etchebarne said that closures on the Grapevine and other mountain roads are designed to avoid a worst-case scenario, and that they generally are based more on road conditions than the experience level of individual drivers. Most vehicles can manage the steep inclines even in snowy conditions if they maintain a steady speed, he said.

However, if an accident forces traffic to slow or stop, and the snow continues to fall, hundreds of vehicles can become stalled at once. The Tejon Pass is particularly vulnerable because of its steep hills and the number of big rigs that travel on it, Etchebarne said.

In Dec. 2008, the CHP waited too long to close the interstate and faced that very scenario, Etchebarne said. Hundreds of drivers had to be rescued after their cars stalled, and the American Red Cross was called to the scene. “We’ve all been there before, and that’s what we don’t want,” he said.

The Highway Patrol and California Department of Transportation, working from both the Fort Tejon Station in Lebec and the Newhall Station in Valencia, began monitoring the Grapevine on Sunday morning when the area was first hit by a snowstorm, Etchebarne said.

Officers escorted drivers along the pass and waited for tow trucks to remove vehicles that had stalled, he said. Snow covered about 30 miles of the road, and visibility was poor. At about noon, they realized that the snow was too thick and that it was likely to continue falling throughout the day. By 12:35 p.m., the road was officially closed, Etchebarne said.

“The timing was perfect,” he said.

Etchebarne attributed the length of the closure to the severity of the storm.

He said Caltrans worked throughout the night to clear the road, but that it would have been impossible to open the road in the middle of the night because of the continued snowfall.

The corridor received between five and eight inches of snow during the storm, said Todd Hall, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service. He said wind speeds were measured at up to 35 mph, although one of the service’s sensors was disabled during the storm.

Caltrans deployed trucks to dump “Ice-Slicer,” a non-corrosive chemical used to melt ice, along with sand to improve traction, spokesman Patrick Chandler said.


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Photo: Alex Rodriguez with California Towcat towed two cars in Gorman as Caltrans worked to clean up Interstate 5, which was closed in both directions. It reopened later Monday. (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles Times / Jan. 2, 2011)

Comments () | Archives (28)

I was diverted from the I-5 to the 58 East (through Bakersfield), then to the 14 South back towards L.A., finally getting back onto the I-5 near the L.A. basin. It was (and I never use this phrase) the day from hell. 15 hours in the car, myriad snowstorms on the diverted routes... same problems on the 14 as those whice occured on the 5. But it was slick, I will say that... and the I-5 is steep. It was probably the right move to shut it down. But it was still annoying and a horrible start to 2011.

I will add this... CHP could have done a better job informing I-5 travellers of the closure... We were in bumper to bumper traffic for 2 hours before seeing one of the electronic signs indicating the close. We could have easily (had we been warned) backtracked and cut back over to the 101... but alas, it was too late.

Finally, after saying all of this... that 58 East goes through some breathtaking stretches of highway back there. I highly suggest checking it out... just not under freakish circumstance.

The Donners thought they could make it over the pass, too.

Sure it wasn't as much snow as in New York, but we have idiots out here who do not know how to drive in snow. It would have been a bloodbath and put many more police and fire first responders in grave danger. Big deal, you got home a day late.

I say let the professionals do their job. And they did! I've been involved in accidents on icy roads that nearly killed. Thank You!

Californians are so precious. You hate to have the smallest amount of inconvenience in your 'golden lives'. Do you really think that the CHP closed that main artery 'just because'? Those men and women along with the Cal Trans workers had to make a decision based upon the information they had at the time. They didn't have the luxury of looking back days afterward to make the call. This is one of the reasons this state is the laughing stock of the heartier states. Now go walk on the beach or sit by a fire and chant.

Now the Times wants to run the CHP? Good Lord. Just possibly a life was saved or serious injury prevented. The CHP was looking out for the safety of us...the citizens. That's their job. Some Times staff member must have gotten stuck in the traffic due to their poor planning and gotten ticked off.

Sometimes we have to be saved from ourselves. Best possible scenario was achieved here! Kudos to the CHP! If it takes me a little longer to get from point A to point B because of a snowstorm, and I get there in one piece, so be it! Excellent call!

Yes, we were driving back from Wrightwood on the 138 and then the 14 -- it was brutal and people were skidding out every which way. People were doing insane things, passing on the ice, stopping cars in the middle of the highway to put on chains, it was ridiculous.

Even worse were the pick-up truck owners -- just because you have a pickup truck does not make it four wheel drive...

The whole Antelope Valley could have been justifiably closed if what you wanted to do was prevent injury and damage and carnage!

Could you imagine this type of road closure in Utah, Idaho or Colorado for only 5 to 8 inches of snow? We've driven I15 through the Salt Lake City/Ogden area and I70 through the mountains in Colorado in much worse conditions and neither highway was closed. Is it me or did this guy Etchebarne contradict himself??? First he says the road closure decision is based primarily on road conditions not driving experience and then he says most vehicles can manage steep inclines even in snowy conditions if the maintain a steady speed. So if nothing else, it seems a CHP escort would have sufficed for maintaining a steady speed...at least they could have kept things moving somewhat.

I think they did the right thing. I was in the grapevine on Sunday. I left and made it past Castaic before they closed the freeway, and it was scary. The road was covered in snow and cars were beginning to slip and slide. It took me 7 hours to drive from Kettleman City to Chatsworth via the 101, and I'm still grateful for it, the 5 was no where to be!

With all the second guessing, no one can win. If they would have left it open and an accident would have occurred, we would be reading an article asking why they didn't close it. They used information they had and made the best decision they could. Maybe they were a little conservative based on their 2008 experience, but it is done.

Other mountain states know how to keep roads open--they plow. There's no excuse for not plowing. Any tiny savings Caltrans realizes by failing to maintain the Grapevine will more than be offset by the losses the public incurred.

Probably sensible to close the Grapevine under the circumstances. Most folks in Calif. have never experienced operating a motor veh. on 'black ice', or snow, in combination with inclines. Most like to put the peddle to the metal, zone out on the centerlines and get there. Think back to the last time your were on a freeway in a major rain storm. Too many scary drivers making poor decisions.

Let me tell you, from over 10 years of living in snow country; you flat-landers with your bald street tires, and even 4-wheel drive, have ZERO comprehension on driving in WINTER conditions. A large number of you clowns think NOTHING of heading into snow and ice country, believing 'Hey, I KNOW how to drive!' You DON'T fool, and not only do YOU, put your loved ones at risk, you put others at risk too, including the Highway Patrol, who HAS to deal with brain-deficient drivers who delude themselves, until they find out they KILLED some innocent folks, or at least, caused serious damage . The CHP may not be Cal Tech grads, but dealing with STUPID drivers, who sometimes KILL CHP Officers, is something about which, THEY KNOW EVERYTHING!!!

I totally agree with the CHP' s position. I was up the mountain right before they closed I-5, and I wouldn't have known what to do in a snowy situation. Most people here don't know what to do. If a worst-case scenario would've happened, there would've been a big outcry on why CHP didn't close I-5!

I support the CHP as i have driven the I-5 over 300 times in my life. From
motorcycle's, light truck's, big rig's and on and on. This road is DANGEROUS in the snow and ice. I live in western Washington and it snow's here considerbly and i would rather drive from here to Whitefish Montana than drive the Grapevine in snow & ice. CHP let those idiot's com-plane as they could always use a map and go around and NO don't use your GPS. Look at a map. A real map.

If Anderson was allowed to drive on an unsafe road and crashed and was injured, he would probably hire an attorney and sue the Highway patrol.

Safety first!!!!!!!

Didn't know the Donners tried to make it over the Cajon pass also.

People are saying, "Oh, this is nothing compared to back east." This freeway was simply not designed to be driven in a snowstorm or with heavy ice. It probably wouldn't have even been built if snow was a regular occurrence.

I've driven over the grapevine just before having it shut down, and while the snow may not have been deep, it had been below freezing for quite some time and I was sliding a bit too much for comfort. CHP's attitude is that it's better to inconvenience people than to have them die out there. (duh)

Why not do the same thing they do on I-80 all the time - setup a chain check and let through people with the right equipment (ie: chains or snowtires / 4wd)? This is a regular occurrence for the same agencies (Cal Trans / CHP) up here where hundreds of cars get though much worse conditions day and night. I've personally driven I-80 from Tahoe to Sacramento with over 2 feet of snow on the highway (unplowed, at 11PM, midweek with no traffic). It was actually a lot of fun in a vehicle setup for it (Jeep w/ snow rated tires and carrying chains just in case). Seems a shame to close all of I-5 when many of the folks probably would have gotten through a chain check.

Driving in snow isn't that bad, we're from SoCA and we moved to Spokane, WA several years back. Drive slow, start your stops about a block before you think you ought to, and when you're stopped look for other drivers heading your way who are trying to stop. Patience... and that's not a Southern California trait... But that downhill heading N toward Bakersfield, search for recent video of cars trying to head up (and come down) our streets in the days just following the first snows and you'll see they're just along for the ride. And I'm not interested in sledding down the entire length of that downhill towards Wheeler Ridge..

Ever heard of "better safe than sorry"? Chances are the CHP saved lives. And it's just typical that if it's cold and there's a storm, the 5'll be closed. Prepare for it and just take the 101.

There are other ways south.
CHP chose the headline "CHP defends 24-hour closure of Interstate 5 during snowstorm" over "29 Killed in Massive Pileup South of Pyramid Lake"
It's a fairly challenging drive in the best of conditions with all the idiots you encounter.

The c.h.p should of let the people complaining go down hill doing 70 with the roads covered in snow that way they would of learned a lesson.

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