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CHP defends 24-hour closure of Interstate 5 during snowstorm

January 4, 2011 |  5:35 pm

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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-- Sam Allen

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)