A mid-winter storm continues to wreak havoc in Eastern Oregon with local and state police agencies reporting dozens of crashes Tuesday on roads and highways due to poor driving conditions.
But children with a day off school made the most of the weather, hitting sledding hills covered by the first substantial snow of winter.
Pendleton Police Chief Stuart Roberts said as of Tuesday morning his department has responded to 32 crashes, slide-offs, hit-and-runs and spinouts. The largest crash involved six vehicles on Monday afternoon at Northwest Despain Avenue and 14th Street, near Pendleton High School.
The “inexperience of virtually all of the drivers involved contributed heavily to the outcome,” he said.
The freezing conditions are sticking around all week, according to the National Weather Service, with local highs reaching the upper 20s. Overnight lows could drop to 9 on Wednesday in Pendleton and 10 in Hermiston before rebounding to the lower 20s.
The National Weather Service also published local observations of snow fall in 24 hours from Monday to Tuesday, ranging from 2 inches in Heppner to 3.9 inches at the airport in Pendleton to 6 inches in Hermiston. The snow and cold had other local emergency workers putting in extra hours.
Most of Tuesday’s spin-outs were on Highway 395. Roberts called those the most frustrating.
“It is simply amazing that ‘professional drivers’ one after another think they can come to a complete stop at the I-84 off ramps (primarily 209 and 210) before making uphill turns without chains,” he said.
“When they spin out, they are normally stuck until we can get them chained since there are just a couple of wreckers in the area capable of pulling commercial truck/trailer combos.”
And those rigs, he noted, are normally busy on the mountain.
Hermiston Police Department Capt. Travis Eynon reported officers there responded on Monday to seven vehicle crashes, although none involved serious injuries. He posted a message on the department’s Facebook page urging drivers to go slower than usual and plan for longer commutes.
“If you do not have to drive in these conditions, please don’t,” he stated. “If you are not comfortable driving in these conditions, please don’t. It requires a bit of practice and experience.”
Even four-wheel drive vehicles might provide better going on snow-packed roads, but Eynon advised they do not stop any better than other vehicles. Use it if you have it, he stated, “but drive it sensibly.”
The police captain also reminded drivers of the dangers of intersections.
“They tend to get the iciest and therefore the slickest,” he stated.
“Plan ahead for intersections and slow your vehicle far in advance of the intersection so when you do use your brakes for the final stop, you can actually stop rather than slide through the intersection and/or hit a vehicle or pedestrian.”
Eynon suggested drivers pack extra food and water, extra medications, a snow shovel, broom, jumper cables, blankets and a cellphone charger.
Umatilla County Sheriff Terry Rowan said his agency has helped plenty of folks who slid off roads, spun out or were in minor crashes, but nothing serious.
“We just ask people to take their time and slow down,” Rowan said, “and that will help with getting to your destination.”
Locals who have to take to the roads will have plenty of time this week to practice that.
Multiple crashes on Monday morning along a fog-covered stretch of Interstate 84 near milepost 223 backed up traffic for miles in a late winter storm.
Lt. Mike Turner, of Oregon State Police in Pendleton, also reported ground ambulances transported two people with serious injuries, and the investigation is ongoing.
“This was not one crash, but a series of several crashes during the same incident,” according to Turner.
The wrecks occurred Monday at approximately 10:39 a.m. on Interstate 84 westbound near milepost 223, about 13 miles east of Pendleton. In all, Turner reported, six passenger cars and three semitrailers collided in dense fog. Troopers from Pendleton responded, along with Umatilla Tribal police and medics plus personnel with the Oregon Department of Transportation.
Witnesses told police one vehicle may have become disabled in the fog, causing traffic to stop, which resulted in the series of collisions, Turner stated. But investigators have not been able to identify the disabled vehicle.
The crashes prompted the closure of the interstate for several hours from milepost 216 to exit 374, Ontario. In addition to the two victims who suffered serious injuries, an ambulance took one patient with minor injuries to a local hospital. Tow trucks hauled five passenger cars and one semi from the scene.
Turner also reported troopers from Pendleton and Hermiston responded to numerous other crashes in Umatilla and Morrow counties. The thick fog and snowy conditions persist on highways throughout the area, according to ODOT, and drivers should slow down and use extra caution. For road and weather information, visit TripCheck.com or call 511 or 800-977-6368.