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We're getting some weather

Hang on. This is Southern Oregon. Sunny days, sunblock and aloha shirts all year around. OK, strike the aloha shirts, but about that sunshine ... Didn't someone say that Ashland is in the banana belt? Isn't there a motel on Siskiyou called the Palm?

Instead, we're getting some serious winter weather.

"We haven't had a good winter storm for maybe 15 years," said John Peterson, street superintendent for Ashland's Public Works. He wondered if we weren't moving back into a different weather cycle.

The last few winters have been mild, but not this one. When our small town gets snow, heavy, street-covering, over the ankles snow, the Public Works Department hits the bricks. "We prefer to be out of sight and out of mind, doing our job" said Mike Morrison, superintendent of public works.

But when a storm hits, be it snow or rain, the public works is quickly on everyone's mind and for good reason.

When explaining how things work, Peterson referred to the severe weather that has swept through town recently, with power outages, street lights blinking, cars abandoned as people walked home, and a few fender benders.

Peterson is called by police or fire or dispatch (at any hour, day or night), and he heads out to assess the situation, with a crew of eight available. He makes a manpower determination and sets in motion a number of efforts.

— — The Darex Family Ice Rink roof collapsed after a tree fell on it during the Feb. 22, 2007 snowstorm.

"During the last storm we had snow coming down so fast we had to send out everything we had," he said. Everything means the "sand trucks," which are pickups with snow plows on the front and a load of "sand" in the back for street coverage. The "sand" is actually volcanic rock which, Peterson said, is coarser but crumbles into a fine dust after some time on the streets. The pickups were augmented by a city road grader, all in an attempt to stay on top of the volume of falling snow. The priority is to clear roads, keep traffic moving, create access for emergency vehicles, electrical crews, and allow kids to get to and from school (if open).

Jim Ward, driving a "sand" truck, sat looking out the window of his pickup recently, snow flurries making him squint.

"I'd be better if most folks stayed home on days like this," Ward said. "It's really slick out here, especially up in the hills. I only got about three yards of cinders in the back, then I have to head back to the yard for more."

There is a method to the clearing of streets, beginning with the main arterial streets and only then moving on to what are called the collector streets. In the last storm, the snow was so heavy, according to Peterson, not only was his crew scrambling to get roads opened and sanded, but snow-laden trees were coming down, blocking roadways and causing power outages in some areas. Crews were out of their vehicles with saws, clearing downed trees, pushing branches and debris off the roads.

Meanwhile the phone rings with emergency calls, the bulk coming from citizens who are stuck due to the snow.

"There will also be requests from the fire department or ambulance to 'run ahead' with a truck, plowing and sanding, to assist them in getting to where they need to go," said Peterson.

If the electricity is down, the public works headquarters automatically switches to generators. During the last storm, a big light tower was set up in the parking lot so repairs to equipment could be made.

As for road gear for motorists, Peterson suggested that everyone carry a set of chains.

"Some of our residents are of the mindset that they don't need chains. But we're getting some real winter weather, and gear can be important. Even an orange jacket is good if you have to leave your car and hike home."

He suggested skipping those short trips when it snows and just hunker down and stay home. The weather will pass. Often sooner than later. This is, after all, the banana belt. Isn't it?