A father and son feared for their lives when they got stranded in the middle of a drifted-over Dunn County road.
An Eau Claire County snowplow driver slept at the courthouse when he couldn’t make it home for the night.
Dozens of barn roofs collapsed from the weight of accumulated snow.
The Dunn County sheriff’s office resorted to rescuing two stranded motorists with snowmobiles.
The Eau Claire County highway commissioner authorized plow drivers to drive the vehicles home at night because it was the only way they could get home — and back to work the next day.
Despite all of the efforts to remove snow from roads, area law enforcement agencies responded to hundreds of crashes and likely thousands of slide-ins in which vehicles got stuck in snow banks or drifts.
Welcome to the record-smashing Snowmageddon that was February in the Chippewa Valley.
More appropriately, based on the aching backs of residents fed up with shoveling and snow blowing, good riddance to Eau Claire’s snowiest month in the 126 years of recorded weather history.
Eau Claire received 53.7 inches of snow in February, shattering the previous monthly snowfall record of 35.3 inches that was set in January 1929, according to the National Weather Service.
“It’s pretty remarkable that you had 53.7 inches for the month,” said meteorologist Bill Borghoff of the National Weather Service office in Chanhassen, Minn. “That’s more than a whole winter’s worth in one month.”
He was not exaggerating, as 46.8 inches is the average snowfall for an entire winter in Eau Claire. The normal amount through the end of February is 36.3 inches, or more than 17 inches less than the city got this February alone.
And if it seemed like it snowed almost every day in February, that’s because it almost did. It snowed at least a trace on 21 of the month’s 28 days, Borghoff said.
For the entire 2018-19 winter through February, snowfall in Eau Claire totaled 77.2 inches — that’s 6 feet, 5 inches, or nearly the height of the average NBA player. That makes it already the fifth-snowiest winter since record-keeping began in 1893 and just a foot behind the all-time record of 89.3 inches set in 1996-97, Weather Service records show.
“I don’t think you’re going to have much trouble getting that record,” Borghoff said, noting that average snowfall in Eau Claire totals about a foot in March and April.
And that 2018-19 total doesn’t even include the 3 to 4 inches that were predicted for Friday, as March continued the persistent weather pattern by coming in like a lion. Borghoff joked that it’s too bad this isn’t a leap year because Friday’s snow could have added to the city’s monthly record that he predicted is “unlikely to be broken for quite some time.”
Borghoff attributed the record snowfall to “kind of a freak thing,” with an unusually stagnant weather system and “you guys just being lucky enough to be under the heaviest bands of these systems that have come through.”
The region’s “luck” is likely to continue, he said, as the latest forecast calls for a cold week followed by the pattern becoming active again.
“You could get quite a bit of snow toward the middle of the month,” Borghoff said.
Rick LaRock and his 15-year-old son, Blake, are grateful to be able to look ahead at all after a frightening experience surviving blizzard conditions last weekend.
LaRock, of Rock Falls, was driving his pickup along a plowed 960th Street just off Highway H near Caryville in Dunn County last Sunday afternoon when he barreled through a snow drift — everything was so white he hadn’t even seen it until he was in it — and came across two guys in another pickup stuck in the middle of the road.
“They told me to turn around and head the other way, but when I turned around about 10 minutes later my tracks were already gone,” LaRock said.
He promptly got stuck and the windy conditions with gusts up to around 50 mph soon created drifts 6 to 8 feet tall over the hood of his pickup. The road became indistinguishable from nearby farm fields.
LaRock called Awesome Towing, which has its office next door to his house, and co-owner Tanya Goss promised to send help. But even the towing company couldn’t get to him in about four hours of trying that included a tow truck and forklift getting stuck and needing to be towed out. Finally, Goss advised LaRock to call 911.
In the meantime, LaRock and his son were getting hungry, thirsty and, most importantly, low on gas, which was essential to keeping the engine running and the heat on. They eventually climbed in the pickup with the other stranded motorists, who also were getting low on fuel.
After dark, LaRock recalled at one point talking to a sheriff’s deputy and being able to see the emergency lights flashing from a distance he estimated at three-quarters of a mile. The officer indicated there was no way he could get to the stranded motorists and asked if they could walk to the flashing lights. With temperatures dipping into the single digits, LaRock said he didn’t think they’d make it trying to walk over the high drifts.
“I was definitely scared,” he said. “I thought we were goners for sure.”
Finally, authorities got Eau Claire-based Big Rig Towing to send out a massive eight-wheel-drive military vehicle that was able to reach the worried motorists.
“It’s ginormous,” Big Rig owner Jack Raven said of the vehicle normally used to extract semitrailer tractors and buses. “I think we pulled 19 people out that night with it.”
LaRock was incredibly thankful he and his son were among those rescued.
“They saved our lives. I’m positive of that,” LaRock said of the Big Rig crew.
Raven said it’s always satisfying to help someone in need, adding that it’s not uncommon for rescued people to run to the tow trucks to warm up.
The February weather led to a revenue surge and unprecedented call volume at Big Rig.
“These last few weeks have been just crazy,” Raven said. “I had hundreds of calls Sunday. I didn’t even put the phone down between calls.”
Conditions last Sunday were as bad as towing company officials can remember.
Goss summed it up with a Facebook post warning people not to attempt to drive anywhere near Highways C, H, J or E in Eau Claire and Dunn counties: “We can not get to you!!! All time worst conditions we have ever seen in the towing world. 6 foot high snow drifts in places. Many people now are trapped in their vehicles with no help. Stay home!”
In all, Awesome Towing had tow trucks get stuck in the snow at least a dozen times last weekend and had all of the cars in its salvage yard get completely buried in snow.
Goss added that the historic February was kicked off by polar vortex conditions in the final days of January in which temperatures in the Chippewa Valley hit minus 30 degrees, prompting Awesome Towing alone to respond to 75 calls for tows and jump starts in two days, tripling its previous two-day high.
Through it all, she was trying to find a way to get her dad and business partner, Randy Goss, home from the hospital after having his appendix removed. When neither a pickup with a plow nor a skid steer could clear his driveway and he was in too much pain to try to ride a snowmobile to his house, Randy was forced to spend the night in a hotel.
“It was horrible. There was no way to physically get him to his house,” Tanya Goss said.
When tow trucks couldn’t reach a pair of stranded cars Sunday, the Dunn County sheriff’s office rescued the motorists with snowmobiles.
“I don’t remember us ever having to use such extreme measures before,” said Sgt. Rich Day.
In all, the department responded to 75 crashes and slide-ins Sunday, including one four-vehicle crash on Highway B in which the first vehicle was stuck in the middle of the road and another incident that involved a mother and infant who were stuck in their vehicle northwest of Menomonie for quite some time before neighbors were able to dig them out with skid steers around 9 p.m.
“The wind was blowing so bad that roads were drifting over as fast as they could plow. We had multiple places where roads were closed with drifts 5 to 8 feet high,” Day said. “It was definitely the worst snowstorm I’ve ever had to work.”
Eau Claire County Highway Commissioner Jon Johnson said his veteran plow drivers reached the same conclusion, with some reporting last Sunday that they couldn’t see anything at all and others saying a foot of snow would blow in behind them as soon as they were done plowing.
One plow driver ran into a car he couldn’t see that had been abandoned in the middle of a road, and in another case, three people reported where they had abandoned cars, but crews still couldn’t find them because they were engulfed in snow. At one point, three county plows were reported stuck at the same time. Highway HH had drifts at least 6 feet high from Foster to Augusta.
At 6 p.m. Sunday, Eau Claire County pulled its plows off the roads and declared a state of emergency, with a dozen roads still closed and impassable. Crews got 11 open the next day but weren’t able to clear Highway O until two days after the storm.
“We kind of waved the white flag for our own safety,” Johnson said.
That night, one Eau Claire County plow driver slept in the courthouse and Johnson authorized others to drive the plows right to their homes because it was the only way they could complete the trip. The next morning, two plow drivers took snowmobiles to work because of impassable roads.
“If they’re not out there plowing, nobody can get anywhere,” Johnson said. “That’s how extreme it was.”
February’s historic snowfall levels also kept law enforcement agencies busy.
Sgt. Cliff Parr of the Wisconsin State Patrol said the agency, which primarily works the Interstate 94 corridor and major U.S. highways, responded to 585 run-offs, 619 motorist assists and 242 crashes in February in 20 counties of northwest Wisconsin. That included a 40-vehicle pileup that closed I-94 in Eau Claire County for 5½ hours on Feb. 10 and another crash Feb. 12 near Osseo involving nine semis.
In the city of Eau Claire, police responded to 336 crashes in February, up 61 percent from the same month last year. Vehicle assists went up at an even faster rate, more than tripling from 89 in February 2018 to 275 last month, according to Bridget Coit, community relations officer for the Eau Claire Police Department.
Roofs at risk
Authorities say dozens of barns and sheds in the region have had roofs collapse from the weight of snow piled on top of them.
The most tragic case involved James Volbrecht, 53, who died Feb. 22 when he fell through a skylight while removing snow from the roof of his town of Union barn, according the Eau Claire County sheriff’s office.
Gary Gullicksrud had 40 cows killed and 20 more injured Sunday when the roof of his rural Strum barn collapsed.
Christopher Arneson of Caryville said the roof of his 6,400-square-foot machine shed collapsed recently, burying his plow truck and most of the equipment at his farm. He estimated the collapse caused $300,000 in damage and as of Wednesday was awaiting word from his insurance company about how much would be covered.
The drifts are so high and firm that Arneson said his two black angus steers have been walking right over the fences meant to contain them.
“The snow pack is so iced over that a 2,000-pound steer can walk right over the fence as if it wasn’t even there,” he said, chuckling as he explained that he lures the animals back by putting out a pail of corn.
After all of the snow that fell on west-central Wisconsin last month, plow crews were left with the massive task of moving it off roadways so people could get around.
To get an idea of the scope of the challenge, Eau Claire plow crews typically conduct four or five full plow operations per winter after snowfalls of 3 or more inches. This year they did seven just in February, which equates to an average of one every four days, said Steven Thompson, city street maintenance manager.
“At one point plow operators worked 21 days straight without any time off,” Thompson said. “They have been very professional about the job they’re doing and coming in whenever they’re needed, but they’re probably looking forward to summer even more than most residents.”
While he hadn’t calculated the budget impact as of Thursday, Thompson said the extra plowing undoubtedly has used up a big chunk of the city’s annual plowing budget, including using 3,300 tons of salt and about the same amount of sand to keep the streets in the best condition possible.
Johnson estimated Eau Claire County had used 70 percent of its annual plowing budget by the end of February, with more snow likely the rest of this winter and in November and December.
“It’s been crazy to see us spending so much money so fast,” Johnson said, noting that plow drivers have been working an average of 70 hours a week. “But we’ll figure it out. We always do.”
One of the biggest obstacles crews are facing in clearing streets has been people violating the city’s odd-even parking regulations during snow events, Thompson said.
To support those efforts, Eau Claire police issued 2,614 parking tickets in February, more than 11 times the 234 issued last February, and have pledged to ramp up towing of vehicles violating the alternate side parking rules.
Between snowstorms, the crews are trying to squeeze in snow removal efforts in which they haul excess snow to a dump site off of Galloway Street. Streets are prioritized based on their width, traffic levels and safety concerns related to the height of snow piles.
“Our guys have been working around the clock, and the thing people are going to have to remember is to be patient. This is going to take time to clean up after a record-setting month of snow,” Thompson said. “Before we’re done, it’s going to be melting.”