A three-story building is about 40 feet high. That’s how much snow can fall and cover Route 89, the main highway that runs through Lassen Volcanic National Park (LAVO) in Northern California. The park, which lies about 50 miles east of Redding near the northern edge of the Sacramento Valley, gets snow as early as September and as late as March.
“It’s a whole different world up here in wintertime,” said LAVO roads and trails supervisor Mark Welch.
When spring comes, a field crew has to find—and clear—Route 89. The highway includes 13 miles of road above the tree line, the altitude above which trees stop growing. Up there, few clues indicate where Route 89 lies beneath the snow.
“A lot of our work relies on having faith in our GPS and GIS,” said Welch.
The consequences of not finding the road range in severity. Best case scenario, if crew members are a few inches off, they might have to move some more snow, adding extra labor and a bit more to fuel costs. Worst case scenario, however, exposes the crew and equipment to life-threatening hazards. Several years ago, one employee was fatally injured when his bulldozer went over the edge of the mountain and the blade hit an obscured boulder.
Most road-clearing mistakes in LAVO do end in inconveniences rather than casualties, but that doesn’t make them easy to deal with. Getting back up on the road after veering off takes time and resources.