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Originally published February 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 2, 2008 at 1:16 AM

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Snoqualmie Pass might reopen in the morning

Snoqualmie Pass will stay closed all day today and possibly longer as state Department of Transportation crews work to clear the highway which has been hit with six feet of snow this week.

Seattle Times staff reporters

Snoqualmie Pass could open between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. Saturday "if all goes well," the Department of Transportation (DOT) said this evening.

DOT officials had previously refrained from predicting when the pass might reopen, saying only that it would open when officials believed it was safe.

Those safety concerns were heightened this morning after an avalanche dumped snow near the summit and whiteout conditions were reported.

Stevens Pass also closed this morning in both directions at the summit because of several collisions. It reopened at 11:20 this morning.

The National Weather Service said that as of today, the snow is 130 inches deep at Snoqualmie Pass, 165 percent of the normal 79 inches. The record was 154 inches for this date was set in 1964.

"It's not a record, but 165 percent of normal is a lot of snow," said forecaster Dennis D'Amico. "Though it's not a record, that doesn't mean it's not a year to remember."

Forecasters said 135 inches of has accumulated at Stevens Pass, far above the average 87 inches, but below the 152-inch record, also set in 1964.

Don Whitehouse, regional administrator for the DOT, said crews at Snoqualmie Pass will do nine hours of blasting today on up to 15 avalanche chutes to bring down loose snow and will reassess conditions about 8 p.m.

"We're doing an hour by hour assessment," he said. "We'll open when I believe it's safe for my family to travel this pass."

Whitehouse said he could not predict when the pass might open. "We know these truckers have been waiting and what it means to the economy," he said.

DOT avalanche control experts have enlisted the help of avalanche crews from the Alpental and West Summit ski resorts to stabilize the slopes above the Interstate 90 corridor. Further, DOT is bringing additional snow blowers from other areas of the state. About 40 crew members will be working throughout the day today.

DOT and the Washington State Patrol had been shuttling residents on and off the mountain, but due to the avalanche risk and control efforts, shuttles have been discontinued for today.

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The good news, said Whitehouse, is that the snow may be tapering off. He said up to a foot of snow is predicted over the next 24 hours, three to six inches the following 24 hours before getting a weather break on Monday.

This morning's avalanche covered about 200 feet of roadway with four feet of snow, and 60 DOT workers were working to clear the highway.

On Thursday, hundreds of drivers waited in heavy snowfall for a police escort to guide them down to Seattle. Scores of truckers sleeping in their cabs and watching movies, their cargo also stranded.

This is how commerce fades when heavy snow shuts down the state's major east-west highways. The week's relentless storms have stretched over 15 counties, causing accidents and overwhelming state and local authorities, Gov. Christine Gregoire said in declaring a state of emergency Thursday.

Her declaration will allow government agencies to contract with private business to get snow-clearing equipment more quickly. It's welcome relief statewide but won't help open Interstate 90, where state Department of Transportation crews are struggling to stabilize snow-covered mountainsides that have given way twice this week to avalanches that blocked Snoqualmie Pass.

The pass, about 50 miles east of Seattle, is where the state's economy and mobility have been hardest hit. It's been closed for all but about three hours since early Tuesday.

Eastern Washington has also been hit hard. Spokane, where schools were closed for a fourth straight day, had its deepest snow in more than a decade, with 20 inches recorded Thursday morning. Classes at Washington State University in Pullman were canceled Thursday and today because of snow.

The counties covered in the governor's emergency declaration are Adams, Clark, Columbia, King, Kittitas, Klickitat, Lincoln, Okanogan, Pend Oreille, Skamania, Spokane, Stevens, Walla Walla, Whitman and Yakima.

This time of year is typically one of the slowest for shipping, said Jack Ziebarth, vice president of operations for Pacific-based Gordon Trucking Inc. The added snow delays are going to make it difficult for some of the smaller companies to survive.

Interstate 90 was closed Thursday eastbound at Edgewick, milepost 34, and westbound near Ellensburg, milepost 106. Semitrucks were parked along the highway and at a truck stop at Edgewick, waiting to be allowed through.

Productivity is at a standstill, Ziebarth said. "Out here on the West Coast we've had virtually every pass closed from the Canadian border down to California" at one time or another.

A trucker going from Seattle to Utah could have to chain and unchain four or five times if he isn't stopped entirely, Ziebarth said. It's a health and safety issue that's "taking a physical toll on the drivers," he said. "Just take it easy on those guys, they've had a tough week."

Trucker Barry Wagner, 60, ate lunch at Ken's Restaurant in Edgewick on Thursday afternoon and said he wasn't expecting to leave anytime soon. He was supposed to transport a cryogenic tank from Seattle to Pennsylvania, but he's been stuck in Edgewick since Monday.

The worst drawback to not driving — besides loss of income — is boredom, he said.

His daily routine all week, Wagner said, has been: "Sit in my truck, come into the restaurant to eat, watch a little TV, watch a movie, talk on the radio."

Frank Allen, 48, was forced to park his truck Wednesday night on his way to unload cargo in Superior, Wis. At least he was accompanied by his wife and four mini-dachsunds, he figured, but the delay still hurt.

"If the wheels aren't turning, we're not making money," he said.

On a typical weekday, about 6,500 to 7,000 trucks drive over the pass. State officials said Thursday they had no estimate of how much money has been lost.

Ski areas at Snoqualmie Pass were "on standby until further notice" due to the closure of I-90, but Mount Baker has been open each day, and Thursday reported a 173-inch base and 14 inches of new snow.

Deb Darrow, 56, of Renton, was returning from a business trip in Eastern Washington when troopers forced her to turn back on I-90. She rushed to the packed Summit Lodge and snagged a room with a woman who offered her the second bed. She later learned the woman lives a mile from her in Renton.

The two women made the best of it. "So we spent the night drinking wine," Darrow said, as she scraped snow off her Subaru Outback. "What more do you need?"

Nearby, Casey Graham, 50, drove a large grader up and down the road, pushing aside several feet of snow.

Graham, who has worked for WSDOT for 20 years, said it's the worst snow he's ever seen at the pass. He started work at 6:30 a.m., his second straight day with a 12-hour shift. But he was in good spirits.

"If you like pushing snow, it's great," Graham said. "Nothing like it."

Seattle Times staff reporters Brian Alexander, Jack Broom, and Susan Gilmore contributed to this report.

Ashley Bach: 206-464-2567 or abach@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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