Snow and Ice FAQs
On this page:
- What we do: Understanding WCPW Snow Plan
- What you should and shouldn't do
- What you should expect and prepare for
- Questions related to the revised (2020) Snow Plan
- Environmental impact of anti-ice and de-ice materials
What We Do: Understanding the WCPW Snow Plan
Whatcom County Public Works is charged with safely, efficiently, and cost-effectively maintaining reliable access to the County’s road system and all 960 miles of our roads.
How does the county decide which roads get plowed first, second, and so on? I want to know how soon the county will plow my road.
Each road in the county is given a priority level of 1, 2, 3, or 4. Priority 1 roads are focused on first, then priority 2, and so on. Road plowing and sanding is prioritized based on factors like how much traffic a road receives, if it is a transit or school route, if the road has emergency facilities like police and fire stations, and other similar criteria. This means that service on low-priority level 3 or 4 roads may be significantly reduced during and after severe snowfall, ice storms, and other winter weather.
Special circumstances and situations may cause deviations from the listed priority levels. For example, if a road is unsafe for our snow plow operators, regardless of its priority level, it will not be plowed until it can be made safe. If first responders or emergency workers request that a road be plowed for emergency access, maintenance crews will re-route to assist the first responders, regardless of what priority level the requested road is.
- View the county travel planner interactive map of road priority levels. You will need to click on the 'Snow Priority Roads' tab at the top of the link.
- Read the WCPW Snow Plan.
How does snow plow operator safety affect when and how a road gets plowed and sanded?
The safety of our snow plow operators is our highest priority. We will not put employees at risk by asking them to operate equipment in areas that are unsafe. Weather conditions can change quickly and vary significantly from one location to the next, so those dispatching equipment cannot judge the safety of remote plowing operations. Furthermore, if a snow plow ends up in a ditch or is hit by a car, that plow can’t provide any service to any location. So, just like any other commercially licensed truck driver, the ultimate decision about the safety of the work environment falls to the operator.
Why don’t snow plows drive backwards up hills sander first? It is not safe or legal for operators to drive snow plows backwards up icy hills. They cannot see behind them. It is especially unsafe in a snowstorm in the dark. Imagine if a resident drove down a hill under icy conditions, unable to stop or slow down, and hit a snow plow driving up hill backwards unable to see oncoming traffic. These kinds of scenarios are the reason why snow plows are not permitted to drive backwards.
Are roads ever closed in winter snow storms?
Roads may be closed due to drifting or accumulation of snow beyond our ability to maintain them safely for traffic. Closed roads are signed and listed online during storms. They are reported regularly on social media and KGMI.
Rarely, Public Works may request that the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office temporarily block a lane of traffic so snow plows can do their work unimpeded and to make it safe for snow plowing. Drivers attempting to pass on icy roads are prone to sliding into snow plows, putting them and their operators out of service. These situations are rare. This is a risk we prefer to mitigate by asking for assistance from law enforcement when situations like this may occur.
How does WCPW work with police/fire/emergency services?
WCPW coordinates closely and regularly with emergency services and 911 dispatch. Public Works is dispatched alongside other emergency services when needed, and we prioritize requests from first responders over established road priorities.
The snow plow left a berm in front of my driveway/mailbox, will WCPW remove the berm?
Whatcom County receives numerous phone calls during snow events indicating that snow berms left by the plows have blocked access from private roads and driveways onto county roads or mailboxes. During routine snow plowing, the county simply does not have the resources to remove berms and clear driveways and mailboxes. We understand the inconvenience, however, keeping driveways and private roads clear is the responsibility of the owner or his or her contractor.
My road winds up a hill to a turnaround. The turnaround is used by many different drivers and types of vehicles. Why isn’t my turnaround plowed sooner/faster?
Hills with turnarounds at the top are common around the county. In fact, the east county is nearly nothing but hills with turnarounds. Roads with turnarounds are managed systematically on the same priority level basis. Read more about how we prioritize roads in our snow plan.
There are kids living in my neighborhood that need to get to their bus stops (which are sometimes at the bottom of a hill). Why isn’t my road a higher priority and plowed sooner?
This situation occurs throughout the county and is not unique to any neighborhood or community. Snow and ice management on school bus routes is managed in collaboration with school district transportation managers. School districts decide when to have their buses on snow routes and when to implement other alternatives such as delayed start, remote school, or canceled school days. We stay in close contact and collaboration with school officials as part of our road prioritization.
There are healthcare workers, teachers, and other essential workers in my neighborhood. Why isn’t my road a higher priority and plowed sooner?
Essential workers live in neighborhoods all throughout the county. Like elsewhere in the northwest, plowing is prioritized based on traffic volume; arterial roads, routes that connect between cities and state highways, and WTA and school bus service roads are the highest priority. If the county were to plow neighborhood roads before fully clearing arterials, then drivers would leave their neighborhoods only to encounter dangerous conditions on higher speed, more congested roads. Read more about how we prioritize roads in our snow plan.
My neighborhood road is a county-approved road. The county authorized and permitted its construction, the county owns the road, and I pay taxes! Why isn’t my road a higher priority and plowed sooner?
Public Works must operate in a manner that prioritizes operational safety and established road priority levels to systematically manage snow and ice across all 960 miles of county roads. Equipment availability, staffing, and the unique aspects of individual winter storms all influence response times and the effectiveness of our efforts.
How has COVID-19 impacted county snow and ice management?
The coronavirus pandemic has affected the department’s winter operations by limiting our ability to hire and train new employees and for new employees to obtain the CDL licenses and training needed to drive snow and ice equipment. Levels of service could be further restricted if employees must quarantine or isolate due to infection.
What you should and shouldn’t do.
How should I plow my driveway so that the county’s snow plow doesn’t push snow back into my driveway?
When clearing your driveway and snow berm, please pile the snow to the left side as you face your house, especially as you get closer to the road. This will prevent the county’s plow blade from pushing the material you just shoveled, back into your driveway again. Do not put snow on the road. This creates obstructions and hazards to other motorists.
People park their cars on the side of the road when it snows. How does that impact snow removal and snow plow operations?
Cars parked alongside the roadway make it difficult (sometimes impossible) for snow plows to do their work. Vehicles parked in the right of way is the single biggest impediment to effective snow removal on some roads. When vehicles attempt to drive up a hill and end up stuck, they may get left. We know that sometimes drivers have little or no choice but to leave a vehicle parked on the side of the road. The best action would be for the driver to not attempt to drive in these conditions in the first place. We hope that drivers would not park vehicles on the side of the road unless there is a safety or emergency related reason to do so.
If I call WCPW multiple times, will it help me get my road plowed faster?
No, calling multiple times will not change the priority of snow plowing or winter operations. When someone calls multiple times, our limited administrative staff must take repetitive phone calls when they could otherwise be coordinating with snow plow crews.
There is a tree down on my road, who do I call?
When a tree is blocking the road, who to call depends on what type of road it is. A private road or driveway is the responsibility of the property owner. A city road is the responsibility of the city. A road in the county is the responsibility of Whatcom County Public Works.
There is a power line down/power outage, who do I call?
Call the power company, not WCPW.
- Report a power outage to Puget Sound Energy.
- Report power lines down by calling Puget Sound Energy at 1-888-225-5773 or call 911.
The water/sewer line is not working/broken, who do I call?
Call your water utility company, not WCPW.
My phone line is down, who do I contact?
Contact your phone company, not WCPW.
My neighborhood wants to hire a private contractor to do its own snow removal. Can we do that?
We are always supportive of neighbors looking out for themselves and each other. For safety and liability reasons, County roads are maintained by commercially licensed County operators trained on County owned and insured equipment. The exception is when Public Works publicly solicits for licensed, bonded, and insured third party equipment and operators. WCPW is exploring the feasibility of a more targeted snow and ice management solicitation for 2021.
What you should expect and prepare for.
How can I be prepared when a big winter storm hits?
Every winter storm is different and comes with its own unique challenges. Be prepared, be patient, be kind to yourself and others.
For your vehicle:
- Ensure your vehicle is up to date on all routine maintenance to reduce the chance of it breaking down during a winter storm.
- Four-wheel drive, all-wheel drive, or higher clearance vehicles will generally have an easier time on secondary roads.
- Don’t abandon your vehicle on county roads unless you must do so for safety reasons. Vehicles left in the roadway can prevent plows from clearing snow and may be damaged.
- Have tire chains or traction tires readily available.
- Keep emergency winter supplies in your vehicle.
For your home/driveway:
- Have food, water and medical supplies in your home to last up to seven days. Read the winter storm preparedness guide from weather.gov.
- Check weather reports frequently since forecasts can change.
- Plan ahead for even longer periods of inclement weather than is forecasted, especially for major storms.
- Park your vehicles in your driveway and off of the road. This helps snowplow operators complete their routes quickly and efficiently. Vehicles parked in the roadway can prevent plows from clearing snow.
- Have your snow shovel and broom ready, or make arrangements to have someone else clear snow from your driveway/property.
What if my mail/package delivery or garbage collection service is unable to get to my home because of a snow storm or flood?
Delivery and pickup services can be disrupted across the county during hazardous weather events. This issue is not unique to any single neighborhood or community. These services may be essential in the long term; however, they are not essential during a weather emergency. WCPW does not prioritize snow and ice management based on mail/package delivery or garbage pickup. Roads are prioritized based on traffic volume; arterial roads, routes that connect between cities and state highways, and WTA and school bus service roads are the highest priority. Read more about how we prioritize roads in our snow plan.
I live on a private road, who will plow and sand my road?
Whatcom County does not provide winter weather services to private roads. Contractors that provide snow plowing and other winter services for private roads are listed on contractor websites like Craigslist and Angie’s List.
Questions related to the revised (2020) snow plan
Last year (2019) my road was a Priority Level 2 road; this year (2020) it looks like my road is a Priority Level 4 road. Why did that happen? What is the road priority level of my road?
We understand the community’s confusion. The previous snow plan said service level 2 roads were “Paved, and normally secondary roads with over 25 residences, or a road that serves a functional need for public access.” The old definition was not updated to reflect Whatcom County’s rapid growth. The reality is that today almost every residential road in Whatcom County has more than 25 residences. The old definition may have been attainable 20 years ago, but isn’t anymore. In contrast, the County’s road priority map (PDF) was kept current. It showed many residential roads as a level 3 roads, making the map our drivers use inconsistent with the old snow plan. We apologize for this oversight. We are trying to improve our communications and have written a new winter snow and ice plan to be consistent with our on-the-ground operations.
The current plan was revised in 2020 to update road priority definitions to reflect actual response procedures. The old document only had priority levels 1-3, and the new plan creates the new priority level 4 to better reflect actual response and operations realities. Smaller and/or more rural or isolated roads meet the definition of a Priority Level 4 road in the new plan.
On paper, it looks like the road’s priority level has been downgraded, though in fact, the change reflects the priority level that has been in place on the ground for the past several years. Residents should not see a reduction in service from what they have experienced over the last several years. Our crews work to get to everyone as quickly as possible. When snow continues to fall, we must keep main arterial and collector roads open for emergency services and are unable to address lower priority roads. Snow removal and sanding services are this way across the country; safety and emergency services are our highest priority. This does not mean your neighborhood has been forgotten. It does mean that you must be prepared and be patient.
Environmental impact of anti-ice and de-ice materials
What is liquid anti-ice and how is it used?
WCPW purchases salt brine from the City of Bellingham and applies it to roadways to keep ice, snow, and freezing frost from bonding with roadway pavement. This brine is about 23% salt, and is applied when temperatures are between 25-32F. When temperatures are below 25F, beet juice may be added; the organic sugars help take the freezing temperature of the brine down to the low teens.
This brine acts as a barrier between the road and the ice to make plowing more effective. It is only effective under specific dry conditions when there is no rain in the forecast and humidity is low.
This brine is all natural and does not contain any chemicals harmful to fish (like Magnesium Chloride). Cliff Mass, professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington, has this blog post to explain how this additional salt relates to the amount of salt that occurs naturally in our environment.
When does WCPW use sand?
Sand is selectively applied to road surfaces during freezing rain and black ice events in the priority level order listed in our snow plan document. Public Works often applies sand at hills or intersections when crew and equipment are available and it is safe to do so.