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Alaskans digging out after a wintry weekend wallop of snow, ice, wind

A Salcha-area resident this morning posted this photo of an icy stretch of the Richardson Highway in North Pole.

The Interior is reeling from a weekend of snow, rain and wind. National Weather Service meteorologist Alex Young says the event which began Christmas Eve has coated the region with snow and ice.

“There was anywhere between 8 to 12 inches of snow around town with some higher amounts parts of the hills around Fairbanks,” he said. “And that was through early Sunday morning, when the snow changed over to primarily rain.”

Young said that from Sunday morning through Sunday evening, “there had been up to 1 inch of just pure rain, and we’ve heard reports of anywhere between a tenth and seven-tenths of an inch of ice accumulation throughout Sunday.”

He says other areas received more precipitation, including the Denali region.

Kris Capps / Facebook
Healy-area resident Kris Capps says she shoveled enough snow off her porch Sunday to enable her to open the front door. But she hadn't yet excavated a path to the truck she usually drives when it gets snowy.

“There was a report of 24-hour snowfall over 12 inches, so you know there were higher snow amounts in the Alaska Range and consequently higher rain amounts as well in (some) areas, especially north of the Alaska Range near Nenana.”

Young says the last time the Interior had similar warm wet weather was in November 2013.

“There’s been very few events where we’ve seen anything like this where we get this much rain in the middle of winter,” he said in an interview on Sunday evening.

Young attributes the heavy precipitation to a strong high pressure ridge in the North Pacific.

“As systems roll across the Bering Sea, they’re getting pushed up to the north, where we get a nice feed of moisture into Northern Alaska.”

Fairbanks has received nearly 52 inches so far this season. That’s almost 20 inches above normal. Young says another storm is expected to hit the Interior beginning Tuesday.

“It looks like as of right now, another 8 to 12 inches of snow, anywhere from Tuesday morning to Wednesday morning,” he said.

GVEA scrambles to keep up with outages

Heavy accumulation of snow and ice on trees has resulted in numerous power outages. Golden Valley Electric Association spokesperson Meadow Bailey says as of Sunday, there were more than 130 outages affecting more than 14,000 customers.

Bailey says GVEA has mobilized a lot of resources to make repairs.

A resident who lives along Old Valdez Trail south of Fairbanks had to turn around when she encountered a downed power line across the roadway. Golden Valley Electric Association crews have been busy since Christmas Eve repairing problems like this, which often are caused by heavily snow-laden trees falling across power lines.

“We have all of our GVEA crews and we also have contractor crews, but with that number of outages, it will take time and we anticipate that people will have extended outages,” she said, adding that entails the crews working “multiple hours.”

Bailey emphasizes that the utility is dealing with outages spread across a sprawling service area from Delta Junction to Fairbanks and Denali Park.

“With the number of outages we have, poor road conditions, obviously that makes our response time slower.”

‘Hazardous conditions’ on area highways

Driving conditions around the Interior were difficult Sunday, including along the Parks Highway, which was closed between Nenana and Healy Sunday by Alaska State Troopers. Spokesperson Austin McDaniel says public safety concerns prompted the closure.

“Multiple vehicles were in distress or caught in ditches there,” he said.

Heidi Bohannon/Facebook
Fairbanks-area resident Heidi Bohannon hit the ditch Sunday, but she said in a social-media post that she was able to get help to get her vehicle upright – and then drove the banged-up car home.

McDaniel says that prevented state road crews from clearing the highway. He says travel is not advised anywhere within the storm-impacted Interior region.

Troopers “really encourage folks to stay off the roadways, stay home unless travel is absolutely necessary,” he said Sunday. “We have vehicles in the ditch all over Interior Alaska, we have had multiple motor vehicle collision throughout.”

Drivers who venture out are advised to stay well back of snow removal equipment as the state Department of Transportation works to clear highways.

“We have hazardous conditions on the Parks Highway all the way down to Denali Park,” McDaniel said. “Hazardous conditions all around Fairbanks, the Elliot Highway, all of the Alaska Highway, the Richardson Highway down to Paxson. It’s an incredibly large area.”

DOT: “It will be a while before we’re out of this.”  

State Department of Transportation Northern Region spokesperson Caitlin Frye says the weekend’s mixed precipitation is making the going slow for motorists.

“Our crews are currently running with chains on all the equipment,” she said Sunday, “and so that means it is taking us longer to get to all those spots, than it would normally, so yeah it will be a while before we’re gonna be out of this.”

Frye says the DOT is working through area roads using the normal priority system, in which busier roadways generally are plowed first, but additional snowfall could drag out the process.

“If we don’t get all the way through our priority system, then we will have to start over if we get bunch more snow,” she said.

Frye adds that despite warmer air temperatures, the pavement remains cold and that’s turned the rain into ice, which is difficult to remove.

Fairbanks city and borough offices are closed today because of the hazardous conditions and Eielson Air Force Base, Fort Wainwright and Fort Greely are only requiring mission-essential personnel to work on site today.

Editor's note: KUAC reporter/producer Tim Ellis contributed to this report.