Ice turns roads into skating rinks

US Highway 12 was closed for about three hours while emergency responders helped drivers stuck in ditches.

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One of many cars that fell victim to the recent winter storm rests with lights still on at the side of the road on a particularly icy section of Highway 11 near Stateline Road.

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After a week of overcast, snow and sleet, the lifting of the weather Saturday shows an inverted winterscape in which the upper elevations of the Blue Mountains southeast of Walla Walla are nearly bare of snow while the lower elevations remained icebound ­— instead of the other way around. The topsy-turvyness was the result of an upper level inversion created by warmer temperatures at higher altitudes. The National Weather Service is predicting a good chance of rain today for the Valley, with highs in the mid-40s and lows in the mid-30s.

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Along with the melt comes slushy roads.

TOUCHET - From sliding to slushing: The weekend's weather started with dozens of motorists spilling off the glassy roadways and ends with melting mounds of welcome slush.

A warm-weather system that swept through the area Saturday brought much-needed relief to the frozen foothills, which on Friday night left traffic along U.S. Highway 12 snarled for hours.

Roadway conditions from freezing rain throughout the day became so bad that the highway was closed for about three hours while emergency service responders delivered assistance to drivers stuck in ditches. Some of them had overturned trying to navigate the slick surface.

The pileup was particularly bad at the base of Nine Mile Hill. Washington State Patrol officials closed the roadway around 7:30 p.m. Between Walla Walla and the Wallula Junction eight to 12 vehicles had rolled off or slid into ditches, said trooper Joe Klundt.

College Place resident Greg Nelson was among the dozens stuck on the west side of the hill on his way home from the Tri-Cities Airport in Pasco.

"It was just miserable," Nelson said.

"All I can tell you is that from the ‘S' turn to Pierce's Green Valley we were delayed a good two to three hours because of icy conditions and freezing rain ... there were probably 300 to 400 cars," he estimated.

Shortly after 7 p.m., firefighters with Walla Walla County Fire District 6 closed westbound U.S. Highway 12 at the Touchet River bridge. The eastbound lane was closed at Nine Mile Canyon Road.

It was unclear exactly how many vehicles had slipped off the road prior to the closure, but at one point Walla Walla County emergency dispatchers were tracking nine collisions Friday evening, said Walla Walla Emergency Services Communications Center Manager Steve Ruley. He said the Washington State Patrol often handles its own calls, so there may have been even more incidents.

From 5 p.m. Friday to 6 a.m. Saturday, Walla Walla County dispatchers handled 14 collisions that required a response from emergency personnel, but the actual number of people forced off the road was in the dozens, Ruley said.

"We received a few dozen calls in that same time period for minor accidents where there were no injuries, minor damage and cars just off the road. Those were not tracked; there were so many of them. The only ones that were tracked were the ones that actually required a response," Ruley said.

The icy conditions were so bad that even the driver plowing for the Washington State Department of Transportation had to pull over in Touchet to chain up, said DOT Communications Manager Mike Westbay.

The freezing rain threw traffic into disarray in town, too. The Walla Walla Fire Department fielded 24 calls Friday. Only six of those were after 1 p.m.

The 40-degree temperature Saturday helped clear the roadways as westerly winds helped push out the lingering cold air, said Pendleton-based National Weather Service meteorologist Joe Solomon.

Temperatures overnight were expected to refreeze what had been melted Saturday, but the result is not expected to be anything like late last week's conditions.

Solomon said high temperatures today and Monday are expected in the upper 30s and low 40s. Lows will vary from the upper 20s to the mid-30s. More rain is also expected, but not the freezing kind.

"It won't all melt in one day, but over the next two or three days we should see all of the ice and snow melting," he said.

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