A 35-mile stretch of the highway -- one of the two primary east-west routes through the mountains open during the winter -- has been closed since about 6:30 p.m. Saturday, after trees crashed down on two cars and killed two people.
"There's just not much we can do about it," said Jeff Adamson, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation. "We've got trees that have overloaded, snow-laden branches that are causing the trees to tip out over the roadway. We don't have any way to persuade the trees to drop their snow on the ground. So, until weather or wind causes that to happen -- or we come up with a different strategy that works -- we're going to be in this situation."
He added, "The thought of having the road closed for weeks is just mind-boggling, but at this point we don't know how long its going to be closed."
Adamson said the DOT is not hiring tree crews to cut down the leaning trees because many of them are on steep slopes in deep snow, and it's too dangerous. He said it's even too dangerous for snowplows to be working on the roads.
Meanwhile, holiday travelers can expect even slower driving on Snoqualmie and Blewett passes. Adamson said 7,000 to 10,000 drivers cross Stevens Pass on a typical holiday, and all those drivers will have to use the other passes. Snoqualmie Pass usually has about 50,000 drivers a day on holidays, he said.
"People should plan to leave earlier or leave later, check the web cameras, look at the weather," he said.
The Stevens Pass trees are laboring under snow that fell a week ago. The trees are toppling because the ground isn't frozen solid enough yet to stabilize the trees under the heavy load, Adamson said.
He said the DOT's maintenance supervisor for Stevens Pass has been working in that area for 30 years and has never seen conditions like this.
He said it will either take freezing weather conditions for several days that will stabilize the tree roots, or very warm conditions that melt snow and cause it to fall from the branches, to reduce the danger.
The National Weather Service in Spokane has forecast low temperatures in the teens and 20s through next weekend for the Lake Wenatchee area. But more snow is also predicted, with a 90 percent chance for Tuesday afternoon and a 30 percent chance Wednesday.
The DOT is considering alternative ways to knock the snow off.
Adamson said someone has suggested using a National Guard Chinook helicopter to try and blow snow from the trees. But he said the Chelan County PUD tried that last week with a smaller contract helicopter with little success.
"At this point, we do not have a strategy to force the branches to release their overload of snow," Adamson said. "We just don't know how to do that safely."
So the highway will remain closed indefinitely.
"This is a very serious situation," he said. "We can't let people drive under those trees.
"We're not sending out our own trucks out under those bent trees either. ... We're kind of afraid to speculate how long the (highway) closure will be."
See the WSDOT's Stevens Pass report at http://tinyurl.com/ StevensPassUpdates.
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