Sanpete gets big snowfall, icy temps, followed by rain
Ted Olson, professor of physical science at Snow College, who has been watching weather in Sanpete County for decades, describes the first week of the new year as “unbelievable.”
The average snowfall for the whole month of January is 1.6 inches. But this year, three snowstorms delivered 13 inches of snow in one week.
The county had three days of below-zero temperatures, the lowest a -9 degrees last Saturday, Jan. 7.
Then Sunday, it warmed up, and, of all things, the county got 8/10ths of an inch of rain.
Quite obviously, “it’s seasonally abnormal to get rain in January,” he said.
The volume of snow, combined with the freeze-thaw cycle that emerged from the low temperatures, then sudden warming, set up a tough situation for Utah Department of Transportation crews, who plow the major federal and state highways.
Ordinarily, snow plow crews aren’t permitted to work more than 16 hour per day, says Kevin Kitchen, public information officer for the UDOT office in Richfield.
That’s more than truck drivers are permitted to drive, but federal laws make an exception for snow plows because they are protecting public safety.
But last week, he said, some of the snow removal supervisors asked permission to work crews more than 16 hours.
“Our forces have been working really, really hard the past few weeks,” Kitchen said. “The nature of what we’ve been dealing with has been a little more challenging than usual.”
The big problems have been the extremely cold temperatures and the temperature fluctuations, Kitchen said.
The salt solutions UDOT uses to melt snow and dry up the roads don’t work once temperatures fall to single digits.
“Our crews could be out, move volumes of snow, and treat the roads, but because of the temperatures, you don’t get melting action.”
Then temperatures suddenly warmed up, and Central Utah got freezing rain, or in some places, just plain rain. But at night, temperatures dropped below freezing again, a recipe for black ice.
In such scenarios, Kitchen says, all the road crews can do is sand the roads to try to give vehicles more traction.
In some instances, that wasn’t enough. The Utah Highway Patrol reported eight accidents in the county between Thursday, Jan. 5 and Monday, Jan. 9.
There were four crashes on SR 132 between Pigeon Hollow Junction and Nephi, three on U.S. 89 and one on S.R. 31, the Fairview Canyon Road.
The most serious was a crash on U.S. 89 between Manti and Ephraim on Sunday night. Olson said he happened to drive by. It appeared one car had skidded on black ice. Another car crashed into the first car. “One side (of the car) was mashed pretty badly,” Olson said.
Trooper Jared Jensen, public information officer for the Highway Patrol, said he hadn’t received the report on the accident, but he had heard one or more occupants of the vehicle sustaining the damage had been taken to a hospital up north.
According to Kitchen of UDOT, the freeze-thaw cycles also triggered two avalanches Monday night in Fairview Canyon just over the Sanpete County line in Emery County.
The slides trapped vehicles and closed the road. Kitchen said crews had cleaned up the snow enough to open the road by Tuesday afternoon.
The good news: According to Olson, after years of drought, above-average precipitation both in December and so far in January have brought the water content in the mountain snowpack above Sanpete County to 150 percent of normal.