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I-5 closure holds up travelers

ASHLAND — Bill Juza is bound for sunny Palm Springs, Calif., having had his fill of snow and rain in the Pacific Northwest.

But the Salem resident had to put up with wintry weather for several hours Thursday when Interstate 5 through the Siskiyou Pass south of Ashland was closed because of heavy snow.

Juza and his wife joined hundreds of stranded motorists and truckers who lingered in south Ashland to wait out the storm, which dumped 2 feet of snow on the pass.

"We're trying to get out of this kind of weather," Juza said from his car parked at the Arco Station near exit 14. "We are what you call snowbirds, I guess."

The area was burdened by heavy traffic most of the afternoon, as cars and tractor-trailers lined the streets and filled parking lots. And it could be a sign of more to come through the weekend.

The pass reopened at 5 p.m., four hours after it was shut down to north- and southbound traffic.

"We are letting groups of 50 vehicles at a time go through with five-minute intervals," Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman Gary Leaming said. "This will keep traffic from jamming up there."

ODOT retained its chain restrictions on all vehicles throughout the night, Leaming said.

ODOT also advised all travelers to avoid mountain passes throughout the state for the next 72 hours because several severe storms were expected to gum up passes with more heavy snow, with possible flooding and slides elsewhere.

The Siskiyou Pass may be pummeled again Saturday night with 3 to 6 inches of snow, creating dangerous travel conditions, said National Weather Service meteorologist Sven Nelaimischkies.

Mount Ashland was closed Thursday because the Mount Ashland ski road couldn't be plowed after heavy snowfall overwhelmed the area.

California traffic was stopped at Fondale just north of Redding, said California Department of Transportation spokesman Michael Mayor.

"It was a mess up there," Mayor said. "We had a snow drift cover a merge sign, which stands at least 6 feet or higher."

The Jackson County Expo in Central Point was kept open to overnight truckers, according to Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters.

"They had 10 or 15 miles of backed-up traffic," Winters said. "It was a process."

The Expo parking lot was packed with about 150 tractor trailers at 6:30 p.m.

Most of the drivers were fatigued from a stressful day on the road and decided to spend the night at the Expo before heading out in the morning, Winters said.

Mayor said traffic growth compared to 10 years ago makes for difficult conditions when tractor-trailers became jammed on the highways.

"We are going to stay on top of it and hopefully beat Mother Nature," he said.

Road condition updates are available at www.Tripcheck.com or by calling 5-1-1. Road and weather information can be accessed toll-free within Oregon by dialing 800-977-ODOT (6368).

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471, or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.

Freight trucks line the southbound lane of Interstate 5 in Ashland as truckers chained up and waited for Siskiyou Pass to reopen Thursday. Jim Craven 1/31/2008 - Jim Craven