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Updated Monday, December 24, 2012 at 05:37 PM

Highway 2 closes at Stevens Pass after snow-laden trees topple

By Mike Lindblom
Seattle Times staff reporter

Road workers say they've never seen anything like it — snow-laden trees falling several times a day along the eastern slope of Stevens Pass.

Highway 2 from the pass to Leavenworth, Chelan County, will be closed until midday Monday or later, until crews find a way to clear wet snow from the branches or nature melts it.

People can still drive to the Stevens Pass ski area from the west.

Downed trees have killed two people and injured nine since Friday, in a pair of crashes about 15 miles east of the pass.

Holiday travelers are advised to use Interstate 90 across Snoqualmie Pass or Highway 97 across Blewett Pass to reach Leavenworth and Wenatchee. Extra workers were assigned to keep I-90 clear for the holiday, the state Department of Transportation (DOT) said. An average 5,000 vehicles a day cross Stevens Pass.

Toppling trees also have forced two recent closures on Highway 542 to Mount Baker, but it reopened at 9 a.m. Sunday after an 11-hour shutdown.

Trees rarely if ever tumble onto Highway 2 east of Stevens Pass, but at least a dozen have fallen in the past couple of days. An odd weather pattern has settled there, said DOT spokesman Jeff Adamson.

Temperatures have lingered between 21 and 30 degrees — warm enough for falling snow to be moist but not powdery, and too cold for it to melt off the branches during daytime. A typical low of 15 degrees would freeze the ground, holding snowbanks and tree roots firm, but that's not happening, Adamson said.

Branches are snapping off alders and Ponderosa pines, while shallow-rooted Douglas firs tend to topple, Adamson said.

The National Weather Service predicted snowfall of 2 to 4 inches in Leavenworth on Sunday night, followed by a mostly sunny Monday and a high of 38 degrees.

The first of two tree-car wrecks happened Friday afternoon when a tree crashed onto an SUV headed east, killing Timothy Owen, 58, and Cheryl Janine Reed, 56, a married couple from Bothell. Their three adult children and a son-in-law were injured. As of Sunday, daughter Jessica Owen; daughter Jamie Owen Mayer; and her husband, Steven Mayer; were in serious condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, while son Jeremy Owen was treated in Wenatchee and released.

Then late Saturday afternoon, a westbound car driven by Binay Pathak, 37, of Seattle, crashed into a downed tree, injuring five people, officials said.

Highway-maintenance workers — some of them ex-loggers — chose to reopen the road after the Friday crash because they drove through the area and didn't observe branches bending over the roadway, Adamson said. "Frankly, it was very safe, until the next evening," he said. By Sunday, trees were falling about once an hour, and three fell in a single hour, he said.

Officials have tried without success to clear tree branches by using a helicopter like a wind machine, to blow snow away, Adamson said. The DOT might try a larger copter, he said.

Because this part of Highway 2 runs through protected national forest, the trees and guardrails are very close to travel lanes, as opposed to other places where the DOT's right of way can extend out as far as 50 feet, Adamson said.

The Stevens Pass Mountain Resort announced it will operate Monday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. with at least four lifts, limited food and beverage, retail, rentals, and ski and snowboard school. The snow base already has reached 250 inches, the resort reported, "well above average for December."

Staff reporter Sara Jean Green contributed to this report. Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com


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