Imagine it’s your job, 24 hours a day, seven days a week – during the very worst of winter conditions – to be out on the highways and secondary roads, monitoring conditions, clearing snow, spreading salt and sand, scraping hard and compact snow off road surfaces, updating DriveBC, all while fielding calls from area motorists and providing road-clearing and sanding to provincially mandated standards.
What you’ve just imagined falls on the shoulders of Burns Lake’s own Lakes District Maintenance Ltd. (LDM).
Lakes District Maintenance is responsible for clearing and maintaining the drivability of highways and many secondary roads from west of Houston (Wakefield Rd.) to east of Burns Lake at the top of Priestly Hill, north to Granisle, and south onto Southside. Lakes District Maintenance crews are our first line of defence against winter mayhem.
Keeping more than 1000 kms (1033 to be exact) of roadway clear and safe for winter driving in Northern B.C. is a challenging proposition in itself. Doing that when conditions often combine to make your job almost impossible is exactly what LDM does every winter.
With maintenance yards in Houston, Grassy Plains, and Burns Lake, LDM keeps a ready fleet of sand trucks and graders for twenty-four hours a day service. On the roads, managers and equipment operators monitor conditions as they change on all the roads they’re responsible for.
Back in the office, staff track developing weather trends by analyzing several different weather forecasting sources on an hourly basis. Prioritization of roadways is determined by provincially mandated guidelines.
“Our motto is to attack, not react,” said Steve Gailing, LDM service area operations manager.
The highway to Granisle is travelled every day with a service vehicle making at least one round trip to check on remote road conditions regardless of whether it’s been snowing or not. Staff at LDM keep in contact with municipal public works contacts in Houston, Granisle and Burns Lake, as well as with the school district regarding bus routes, and local RCMP detachments.
With four sanding trucks in Grassy Plains, four in Houston, several in Burns Lake, as well as multiple graders in each location – and back-up vehicles in case any regular fleet vehicles are out of service – as well as the personnel to keep the equipment in service and on the roads 24 hours a day, LDM is a formidable outfit.
Despite all that heavy equipment and dedicated crews, LDM still can’t do what mother nature won’t allow.
Keeping roads open during and after winter storms or regular snowfalls is a complicated process.
“It takes a lot of collaborative thought and strategizing,” said Gailing. “It’s like a wartime scenario.”
It’s not just a matter of sending out trucks when it snows. The highways and byways don’t sit unused as the snow is coming down. Snow, especially when it comes down wet and heavy, can quickly be transformed from a relatively easy to remove soft snow into a compact, hard surface that bonds strongly with pavement in cold weather.
Heavy trucks, often equipped with tire chains, equipped with tire chains, further transform that compact snow into a heavily rutted and broken surface which often can’t immediately be removed with a grader.
LDM is equipped and staffed to clear and grade the highways to ‘bare and black’ standards quickly and efficiently, but only when temperature conditions allow it.
“If it’s too cold, the grader will have little effect on hard, compact snow,” Gailing said. “It’s not like in March when it warms up enough that we can just blast through it.”
Surface temperature is a key variable when it comes to highway maintenance. Air temperature might hover at a relatively mild winter temperature, but the roads could be several degrees colder, especially in areas that don’t get a lot of sun.
This creates all sorts of challenges. Spreading salt is essentially useless once surface road temperatures drop below minus six. It won’t have any melting effect.
Even when surface temperatures allow it, spreading salt to melt ice can still be a weighty judgement call. If a deep freeze is expected, that melted snow will transform back into icy, compact snow quickly.
So crews need more than good temperatures; they need a break in the weather long enough for them to spread salt and remove the resulting softened slop before another temperature drop arrives.
“If we had the window for salt this morning [for example], we’d have to be able to get back out there and slush it off before the temperature drops,” Gailing said. “If it freezes over you’ve really got issues. You’ve got compact snow you can’t knock off with a hammer and chisel.”
“Until you get good temperature conditions, there are limits to what a grader can do,” he added.
Burns Lake experienced a bit of that recently when a heavy, wet snowfall was quickly compacted by highway traffic, and then froze over before it could be cleared.
Graders are still sent out to do the best they can, but they won’t be able to deliver a clear surface unless temperatures allow it.
If the temperature window doesn’t allow for salt, a mixture of sand and calcium chloride is spread. The calcium chloride, added to the gravel, helps it stick to the roads.
Even when roads have been cleared, there’s still the ever present danger of black ice.
“When the dew point and surface temperature meet, you’ve got black ice forming and you might not even know it,” Gailing said.
When and where those conditions will meet are not really predictable, affected as they are by sunlight, air temperature, and changes in elevation. Even though LDM does everything conditions will allow to keep the roads clear, individual drivers have to keep in mind that even a bare and black winter road doesn’t mean summer driving conditions.
There have been 20 traffic fatalities on Northern B.C. highways so far this winter. North District RCMP have noted that it’s been a challenging year regarding winter weather patterns. Drivers, RCMP say, must adjust to road conditions and allow more time to get to their destinations safely.
Fatalities on the roads local crews maintain are always a terrible blow to morale, when despite their best efforts, accidents still happen.
“We’re doing everything we can,” Gailing said. “Having a fatality in the area is a very stressful situation for the guys. They’ve got families and they want the highways to be good too. Our guys go above and beyond and I’m proud of the team we have.