Produce, supplies delayed as WSDOT closes passes due to hazardous conditions

TRI-CITIES, Wash. — Officials with the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) have closed all of the state’s four major passes until likely Sunday, citing multiple hazardous conditions.

These include Snoqualmie, Stevens, White, and Blewett passes.

Meagan Lott, the communications manager for the WSDOT South Central Region, said she doesn’t remember this ever happening in her 16 years on the job.

READ: Road Conditions: Latest storm impacts from Snoqualmie Pass to the Tri-Cities

“I know that we’ve had Snoqualmie, White, and Stevens close all at the same time back in the 2006 – 2007 winter but again having all four close, I can’t recall a time when that’s happened,” Lott said.

The reasons? Large snowdrifts, falling trees, and lots of snow on signs.

“Those conditions are just too hazardous for any of our crews to be out there right now,” Lott said. “We aren’t being overdramatic. The reasons these passes are closed are because they’re extremely hazardous — one, not only to our crews but two, to drivers. We are not going to let our crews get in there until it’s safe and we’re definitely not going to be reopening the passes until it’s safe for drivers.”

Lott added they have crews on high alert for possible avalanches as well.

An avalanche chute is where loose snow comes down and hits the highway, mostly west of the pass at the Granite and Denny mountains.

Currently, with the record-setting amount of snow the region is seeing, those chutes are filling with more than normal.

“Usually, those avalanche chutes don’t really get full where we see a concern for avalanche danger until later in the season,” Lott said.

But conditions are so dangerous right now that avalanche crews are unable to work. Instead, they are surveying the scene and could use explosives to knock down some of the heavy snow above the roadway before reassessing to see if they’ve cleared the chutes enough to safely reopen.

WSDOT Tweeted that the passes will likely stay closed until at least Sunday because of “the amount of the conditions and amount of work needed to safely re-open.”

But for local store owners like Mike Nellis with the Red Apple Market in Kennewick, that’s directly impacting food availability.

Nellis relies on semi-trucks to come through the passes to deliver fresh produce daily. When he got the word Thursday that the passes were closed and deliveries would be unavailable, he said he’s never seen it “this extreme so many days.”

“I think when it’s enough to shut down trucks and deliveries it can definitely cause a food shortage,” Nellis said. “With COVID-19 and with the weather, we are experiencing shortages in the store and empty shelves.”

Nellis said he had an influx of customers Wednesday who tried to stock up before the winter storm.

READ: PREPARE NOW: Next big winter storm takes aim for Washington and Oregon tonight

“Just be patient with us. We’re trying to do the best we can to get product and we’re all struggling to do so,” Nellis said.

Another organization impacted by the pass closures is Second Harvest or “the food bank for food banks.” In 2020, they distributed 52 million pounds of food to 26 counties in the region.

“Five in north Idaho and 21 in eastern and central Washington. That’s a lot of semi loads,” said Community Partnerships Director Eric Williams. “We have had some delays caused, whether its trucks coming in or also our fleet going out.”

The weather conditions caused them to postpone their Kennewick mobile market on Thursday and their Zillah mobile market on Friday.

“We’re trying to get those rescheduled for next week. We don’t want people to have to wait too long before they can access those mobile markets,” Williams said. “It’s really important we’re able to get food out to people but in situations like this, safety is number one.”

WSDOT crews will be reassessing the roads and passes on Friday but officials said their biggest priority is keeping their workers and Washington’s drivers safe in the snow.

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SNOW CLOSURES: Public offices, businesses closed or limited on Thursday due to weather