A month into the season, Ketchikan's winter is proving to be atypical for recent years.
After breaking decades-old daily cold temperature records on Dec. 25 and 26, the First City is continuing its unusual weather streak as local road maintenance crews quarrel with a combination of cold and freeze-thaw cycles that is keeping ice on roads and accelerating the formation of potholes.
"This is quite unusual for us — that we would have a snowstorm and then a melt and then rain, and then right back into the deep freeze," said Mark Hilson, the City of Ketchikan's public works director, in a Wednesday phone interview. "It's been a really busy winter season, and it's only Jan. 5!"
Ice has been unusually persistent on city roads this season, Hilson explained, because Ketchikan has endured colder-than-normal temperatures and several freeze-thaw cycles in a short period.
The city's mix of rock salt — which the supplier calls the "Alaska" mix, Hilson said — is only effective when temperatures are 28 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer.
During a normal winter, that's usually enough to keep city roads ice-free for most of the season. Ketchikan's normal temperature range across December is between 30 and 40 degrees, according to National Weather Service data.
This season has been different, though. Last month, Ketchikan's daily temperatures averaged about 27 degrees — nearly eight degrees below their climate averages. Just six days had average daily temperatures that were above freezing.
"A lot of people ask, 'Why aren't you out salting?' And, well, unless it's 28 and rising, it's really throwing money away," Hilson explained. "So we tend to shift our focus and put anti-skid material down once the temperature is below 28," Hilson explained.
In theory, the city could spread ice melt that is effective at colder temperatures, he said. But the volume that would be needed would far exceed normal retail supply.
For reference, he explained: To de-ice roads after a "small" winter storm "without a lot of ice," the city "might get all that done for 10,000 pounds" of its rock salt.
As far as snow management, although the community saw moderate snowfall on Dec. 27, Dec. 31, Jan. 1 and Jan. 2 — coinciding with breaks and holidays for many residents — Hilson said the timing of the snow didn't hamper the city's plowing.
"You just take the calls and get out and look at what's going on. Some years, that's the way it's gonna be over the holidays. ... Other years, it's quiet, we don't have to respond to a whole lot. But this wasn't one of those years," he said. "It's just, we do what we need to do."
Beyond the city
Outside of the city, roads are maintained by service areas, which are responsible for devising their own maintenance plans, and the Alaska Department of Transportation, which maintains North and South Tongass highways and the main road corridor through town that connects them. (The Ketchikan Gateway Borough lacks road powers, and as such is not responsible for road maintenance.)
Lance Mearig, the director of DOT's Southcoast Region, said Ketchikan's state roads have been similarly challenging to maintain.
"Ketchikan has been one of our, currently, worst areas in the region," said Mearig in a Wednesday phone interview. "We've had a lot of snow and cold all over the place, but Ketchikan is seeing a little more freeze-thaw than the rest of us are. So it's been really hard for us to keep up."
As of Wednesday, Mearig said, just three people are maintaining DOT's roads in Ketchikan. One additional position for state road maintenance in the First City is currently vacant.
"They've been out hitting it hard, trying to keep up, and doing the best they can," he said. "It's been a real challenge for us. ... It's been a tough winter."
Having a quarter of the local road crew positions vacant compounds DOT's longer-standing fiscal difficulties statewide, Mearig added.
"I hate to make excuses, but since 2013, when things started getting tight all around Alaska, we saw our budget reduced pretty significantly, ... somewhere around 20-plus percent less money (statewide). We've been flat funded since ... 2017 — most of those cuts came in the early years of the budget crunch — but we haven't seen our budgets increase.
"And while flat funding is great, our costs have not remained flat, and this winter in particular, we've seen prices on what we call commodities — sand and salt — escalate pretty significantly," he continued. "So that puts a pinch on our ability to keep the level of service maybe what people were used to before, the last time this kind of weather showed up in Ketchikan — we probably were in a little better condition to handle it. Our equipment's older, we haven't been able to replace it as often. So we are struggling with keeping up with winter all over the place."
Help out, and stay safe
Hilson and Mearig, and Morgan Barry, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough public works director, all urged the community to drive safely, and to make sure motor vehicles are properly prepared for winter driving conditions.
"I would encourage everybody to take their time, leave early for their destinations, use their turn signals in advance and keep the speeds down. Drive slow," said Hilson. "It is definitely still tricky out there until we get warmer temperatures. It's going to be very difficult to get this ice removed and cleaned up."
City residents can help out the city's road workers by clearing ice off any storm drains near their property, and by clearing out a path to fire hydrants, Hilson said: "We've spent quite a bit of time doing that around town."
He also stressed the importance of making sure kids are playing in the snow away from busy streets.
"Kids are naturally attracted to big snow berms and that sort of thing, and we just don't want them building their snow forts in snow berms around the streets," he said. "That's just not safe. So keep those kids back doing their snow forts back in the yard and away from areas where somebody may come through with a plow."
Hilson also clarified that clearing ice along sidewalks is, for the most part, the responsibility of the adjacent property owners, not the city.
Know DOT's plowing plans
Mearig also pointed out that not all roads maintained by DOT are given equal attention. Instead, they are served according to their DOT-assigned winter road maintenance priority.
Nearly all of North and South Tongass highways, as well as the main road in town connecting them, is listed as Priority 2 (the most urgent priority level among roads in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough), meaning the DOT road crew clears those roads first.
The next-highest priority roads include North and South Point Higgins roads; Roosevelt, Shoreline and Sunset drives; and the portion of Revilla Road from North Tongass Highway to Connell Lake Road, all assigned Priority 3.
After that is Priority 4, which is mostly residential roads around Point Higgins. Priority 4 also includes the portion of South Tongass Highway beyond Herring Cove.
Priority 5 roads do not receive any winter maintenance. Those roads include Gravina Highway and all portions of Revilla Road beyond the Connell Lake Road junction.
Mearig said Wednesday that roads with Priority 3 or less "are the lower-priority routes, and they're also the hardest ones for us to maintain, because by the time we get our higher-priority roads done, then traffic generally has (packed) down the snow. And our trucks are set up for highway plowing, ... so they're big, and it's hard for them to get snow to go where they want to on some of these smaller routes. And it's really time consuming, also, to get out and get those done."
An interactive map of the state's winter road maintenance priorities can be found on the DOT website at dot.alaska.gov/stwdmno/wintermap.
A challenging weekend
This weekend will prove to be especially challenging for road crews. The NWS on Friday afternoon issued a Winter Storm Warning for Ketchikan and other southern Southeast Alaska communities from 3 p.m. Saturday until 6 p.m. Sunday, with three to 13 inches of snowfall expected.
NWS's two-day forecast for Ketchikan predicts temperatures starting in the low 20s on Saturday morning, then rising to the low 40s by Sunday afternoon.
Hilson said the city roads team is ready. All of its snow removal equipment is ready for use, "especially what we call our belly blades, which are the equipment that have the mid-mounted plows, and those can bring a lot of force to bear on what we anticipate being some very icy conditions."
Hilson and Barry advised residents to avoid driving as much as possible over the weekend.
"Understand that the plow truck drivers, should a large snow event occur, that they're going to be very busy, and trying to keep vehicles out of the roadways as much as possible is really important."
Beyond this weekend, it's anyone's guess where the weather will take our roads next.
"We very well may have two or three months more of this," Hilson said. "I certainly hope not."