Climate change

Sean C. Morgan

Spring blasted into Sweet Home last week with a blanket of wet snow that downed trees, knocked out phone, cable and electric service, and closed school for two days.

Spring officially arrived March 20. That night, the white stuff arrived.

Approximately 6 inches fell in town, with reports of more than a foot on the surrounding hills.

The wet, heavy snow broke tree branches, which fell on utility lines, bringing down entire trees in some locations. The weight of the snow broke multiple power lines as well. It also brought down a carport roof on 4th Avenue and a number of vehicles were hit by falling trees and limbs.

One girl was injured during the storm.

Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance District started responding to calls at 5:05 a.m. with a wire down across Highway 20 just east of Circle K, 2405 Main St., Fire Chief Mike Beaver said. From that point, the department was swamped. From 5:05 a.m. on March 21 to 5:14 a.m. on March 22, the department responded to 33 calls, including 10 medical and 23 involving wires and fires.

Fires were reported where branches fell onto lines, Beaver said. Removing the branches from the lines put the fires out.

One girl was hit by a falling branch, Beaver said. She was transported to Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital, which transferred her to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland.

Due to privacy laws, her name was not released. He did not know her condition as of Monday.

The storm also knocked out power to Sweet Home.

“At one time, it was as many as 7,000 in the greater area, Sweet Home to Lebanon,” said Tom Gauntt, Pacific Power spokesman. Some 485 customers remained without power in Sweet Home at 4 p.m. on Friday. He anticipated most of that power being restored by midnight, although homes that needed the “mast” or “weather head” replaced would still be out, possibly as well as homes near the end of the lines. The weather head is the point where the electricity connects to homes, and it is the customer’s responsibility.

“It was the trees over-burdened with snow,” Gauntt said.

Officials said the ground was already saturated by rain, causing trees to fall. In addition, the heavy snow not only broke branches but weighed down some of the lines directly.

Josh Whitmore cuts branches off a downed tree in a yard near the corner of Mountain View and Elm streets Wednesday after snow brought the tree down on ca couple of vehicles, including the one at right, behind resident Jim Whitmore.

The North Santiam Canyon had similar problems, but they weren’t as widespread, Gauntt said.

“It was coming on the heels of last week, when we had a similar thing in Coos County,” Gauntt said. As many as 12,000 were out across the Willamette Valley. Fortunately, unlike Coos County, the area is far more accessible, and crews, including 115 workers, were able to get in and restore power more easily.

About 11:30 a.m. on March 21, power was restored east of 18th Avenue. Downtown had power about 2:30 p.m., although the west end of Main didn’t have power until another major restoration around 8 p.m.

“Basically, a cold front came through,” said Meteorological Technician Gerald Mackey of the National Weather Service. “It kind of stalled there and rained for a long time, and it turned to snow.”

The front didn’t move much, dumping 7.5 inches on Eugene, he said. It was followed by a second front, which dropped another 7.5 inches on Eugene. There and Sweet Home, much of the snow melted during the day when the snow turned to rain, but the next snow storm covered the ground the second night.

The snowfall was less intense north of Eugene, Mackey said. Battleground, Wash., had about 2.5 inches. The heaviest snow was between Eugene and Salem.

Such weather isn’t all that unusual in western Oregon – especially during a La Niña winter, according to Kathie Dello, deputy director of the Oregon Climate Service at Oregon State University.

“This is the La Niña winter weather we’ve been waiting for,” Dello said. “It’s pretty typical – an active storm track, wet and cool. It’s a bit later than we’ve expected, but low-elevation snow in March isn’t unprecedented.

“La Niña is officially waning,” Dello added, “but she’s still got some fight in her.”

Late-season snow, such as last week’s, can be particularly problematic, Dello said, because it typically is wet and heavy, putting trees, branches and power lines in peril. She said the positive side of the cold front is that Oregon’s snowpack is starting to recover and southern Oregon, in particular, needed more snow in the mountains.

Despite the flooding in mid-January, the period from December to February was drier than normal. “It was the 10th driest winter on record in Oregon,” said Dello, of OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

Weather in the Pacific Northwest is in sharp contrast with much of the rest of the country, Dello noted, which is experiencing record high temperatures.

Just how unusual is spring snow? Dello says a quick check of the record books shows that March can indeed go out like a lion – and that April showers aren’t always rain. The year 1951 was particularly cold and wet, with up to eight days of measurable snowfall in much of western Oregon.

– Corvallis: The latest measurable snowfall came in 2008, when 0.3 inches fell – believe it or not – on April 20. The heaviest March snowfall took place in 1960, when four inches fell on March 3.

– Portland: The year 1951 was memorable in the Rose City, which had eight days with measurable snowfall in March of that year at the Portland Airport. The deepest March snowfall was on March 8, 1951, when 7.6 inches fell. Portland’s latest snowfall was on March 25, 1965, with 0.3 inches.

– Eugene: There were five days of measurable snowfall in March of 1951 in Eugene, led by 4.9 inches on March 5. The latest snowfall was 0.5 inches on March 25, although snow records are spotty and snow was reported on April 20, 2008, but not recorded at the airport station.

– Salem: There were eight days of measurable snowfall in 1951, but the highest March snowfall in Salem was on March 2, 1960, when 6.7 inches fell. The latest snowfall was 0.1 inches on April 8, 1972.

“Historic snow records can be a bit spotty,” Dello said last week. “In some places, the overnight snowfall might be at near-record levels. There also is a lot of local variation. We’ve had volunteer observers with the CoCoRaHS program measure more than six inches of snow outside of Eugene today, and 4.5 inches in Monroe of southern Benton County.”

The program – known as the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network – helps experts enhance their snow observations by measuring and reporting local levels. More information on the program is available at: http://www.cocorahs.org/Maps/ViewMap.aspx?state=usa.

Dello frequently provides weather facts and historical data via Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/orclimatesvc

“What was unusual was that strong a front moving through and staying as long as it did,” Mackey said.

The snow gave way to clear skies by the end of the week, and Saturday brought warm weather.

“Take a picture because you won’t see it again for awhile,” Mackey said.

Rain and showers are on the agenda for this week.

“We’re hoping we’re out of the snow season for the valley,” Mackey said.

OSU Writer Mark Floyd contributed to this article.

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