Basehor snow plow crew clears path, hopefully into spring
Basehor Just before midnight Feb. 2, the snow plow crew with the city of Basehor began bundling up for what would turn into a long week.
The city, along with most of eastern Kansas, was about to get hit with almost a foot of snow and a blast of arctic air. While most people turned up their heaters, put away their cars and braced for the impending freeze, the snow plow crew went to work.
"You need a lot of energy drinks and beef jerky," said Matt Dubois of Basehor, who is in his first year with the city's public works department.
The month of February brought back-to-back-to-back storms that challenged the crew with keeping the city's 42 miles of roadways clear. And while some parts of the country experienced a shortage of road salt to melt the ice, the city of Basehor was forced to use less because of the extremely cold temperatures. Now the city, while prepared for another potential snow fall in March (or April), is hoping for warmer temperatures.
Salt on the wound
Many of the storms that hit Basehor and eastern Kansas were portions of the same storms that hammered the rest of the country.
In those areas, news reports indicated a shortage of rock salt. So, some cities resorted to unorthodox ways of keeping their streets cleared. In Milwaukee, road crews used cheese brine to fight the ice, while road crews in New York used pickle juice, according to reports. The Northeast eventually looked to Hutchinson, to restore their salt supply.
Meanwhile Basehor, according to city superintendent Gene Myracle, did not have any problem with a shortage of salt, but the city did turn to another method of breaking up ice more often this winter.
When temperatures dip below 10 degrees, Myracle said, salt doesn't work. The agents in salt that reduce the freezing temperature of water simply freeze themselves, rendering the salt relatively useless.
"It has been so cold that we haven't actually had to use the salt," Myracle said.
Myracle said the city budgets $12,000 per year for the purchase of salt and sand, which allows the department to buy about 300 tons of material, half being salt from Lyons and Annapolis, Kan., and the other half sand purchased from Bonner Springs. Sand is much cheaper, at $9 per ton, compared to $55 per ton for salt. And sand is effective in bitter cold temperatures because of its ability to cut into the ice.
"It's like sandpaper when you have friction between tires and the road," Myracle said. "It etches into the ice and snow and breaks it up.
But sand also has its limitations: It does not aid in the melting process. So, after using a mostly sand mixture on intersections and hills at the beginning of a storm like the one on Feb. 2, the snow plow crew will begin mixing in a one-to-one ratio of salt to sand. The salt, once temperatures reach just above 10 degrees, is able to get to the pavement level and melt the ice.
'You can never beat mother nature'
The public works crew consists of three full-time workers and one part-time employee who help Myracle in manning the city's four snow plows, and work begins before snow ever starts to fall.
On Feb. 2, the drivers bundled up and headed out the door to pre-treat the intersections and hills of Basehor with sand and salt. Then, they waited.
"We sometimes have cots set up in here," Myracle said recently in the public works building. "But sometimes they just rest in the cabs of the trucks."
Myracle said they usually wait until about 2 inches of snow accumulates before they take the plows out, beginning on the city's emergency snow routes. The plows are capable of clearing a stretch of roadway about 8 feet wide. Most of Basehor's streets are about 24 feet wide, meaning the trucks must make three passes on each stretch of roadway.
If a snowstorm moves in and out within a couple hours, Myracle said, the crews can finish the entire city within about six hours.
"What hampers it is when you get consecutive storms or these storms that last a couple days," he said. "You can never beat mother nature."
Augie Pierce of Basehor has been a member of the public works department for four years. He drives one of the plows and works throughout the winter to keep the truck engines running, their salt and sand spreaders spreading and the plows plowing.
"If it keeps snowing, we keep working," Pierce said.
Challenges of the job
The snow plow trucks that drive the streets of Basehor are not always looked at with appreciation, five-year plow driver Austin Fisher said.
Fisher, Pierce and Dubois each told stories of how they have snow shovels, newspapers and unfriendly gestures thrown their way as they work to clear the streets. Most of the time, they say, it's because the plows are throwing snow onto a person's driveway that may have been shoveled already. Other times, it's because residents' vehicles are parked on the roadway, against city ordinance, and get snowed in.
Myracle said the frustration some people have with the trucks in their neighborhoods has to be kept in perspective with how many miles of road the crews have to clear.
"It's the old catch 22," Myracle said. "We're in their way, but without us, they're not going any where."
Whether it's working at 3 a.m. or noon, many things can go wrong for the public works crew and their trucks.
The sand and salt mixture often clogs their dispensers, which usually have to be fixed on the spot, no matter the time or temperature. Once, Fisher said, the rear axle broke on one of the trucks and he sat in his cab helpless as the rear wheels of the truck rolled on ahead of him. Fisher was stranded until his co-works were able to make it out to him.
Pierce said some of the hardest roads to clear are the many neighborhood cul de sacs. He said the crew really does appreciate the people to move their cars and try to clear the road for the plows.
"That's all we ask is that people give us some room," Pierce said.
Despite the challenges, the long hours and the sub-zero temperatures this winter, the snow plow crew was able to clear Basehor's roadways and keep people driving to work and school.
"These guys do a heck of a good job," Myracle said.