Some of our maintenance team and the Washington State Patrol welcomed in 2020 in a pretty unusual way. A 9-million-cubic-yard unusual way.
Tumbleweeds stacked 20-to-30-feet high blocked a two-mile section of SR 240 west of Richland near the Tri-Cities on New Year's Eve and into the first day of the new year. The Tumblegeddon – as the Washington State Patrol trooper on the scene dubbed it – buried five abandoned vehicles. Some people were also trapped for several hours in their vehicles by the thorny debris, and hundreds of drivers had to detour or turn around. Poor visibility, a sea of tumbleweeds, gusty winds and the dark night was no laughing matter for those involved. Fortunately, no injuries were reported.
"It was a new experience," maintenance worker Jason Vandine said. "We'd dealt with tumbleweeds before, but not to that extent. To have a road closed because of it was different. And then not knowing the extent of it because it was so dark. I opened the first section and thought we were in business to let traffic go and then found out there's a whole other section covered. You couldn't get a good perspective."
Over the course of 10 hours, our crews, with help from the State Patrol and Hanford Police, worked to clear the tumbleweeds. WSP kept track of the vehicles, and some were removed to make way for snow plows – yes, snow plows – to clear the road. Eight of our maintenance workers in the plows ran over, shaved down and pushed the dead Russian thistles off the highway.
Vandine said once vehicles started stopping because of the" tumbleweed blizzard," everything changed as they had to slow down operations to account for the people and vehicles. One of the biggest helps was the temperature being warm enough that they didn't have to worry about people freezing. Plow operators had to drive under 10 mph to avoid obstacles such as vehicles that were hard to see through the darkness and the debris.
|Our maintenance crews work to uncover a semi truck buried by tumbleweeds|
on SR 240 on New Year's Eve
Our priorities were making sure the public and our workers were safe first, getting the road opened second. Communication was key, especially between our crews and the State Patrol as troopers worked as spotters for our crews as they dug into the piles of debris.
|Nope, not snow. This is a huge pile of tumbleweeds on SR 240|
near Richland that a snowplow is working to clear.
"I had tumbleweeds just engulf the plow truck on its sides, on top and in front," Vandine said. "The people would try to let us know where their vehicles were so we could try to keep track of what was there and where so we could avoid damaging any property and so we could keep everyone safe."
While tumbleweeds aren't an unusual sight on the east side of our state, the amount of them and the fact that they actually closed a road and buried vehicles, was enough to draw attention from news outlets all over the country.
"I've worked here for about 20 years and although there are a lot of tumbleweeds blowing out there in the desert, I have never seen that much at once, and that deep," said Ryan Miller, one of our maintenance supervisors. Kara Shute, maintenance superintendent for that area, agreed that she hasn't seen a tumbleweed storm of this magnitude in 35 years.
It's believed that heavy rain and strong, gusty winds up to 30 mph loosened the weeds and produced the unusual event. Fencing along the shoulder of the highway was able to catch some of the weeds. Our crew estimated that had all of the tumbleweeds been hauled away, it would've taken at least 5,000 truckloads.
|High winds created a tumbleweed blizzard that buried several vehicles on SR 240 near Richland on New Year's Eve.|
Vandine said it was similar to large snow events but the big difference was with snow, we often know it's coming and can prepare ahead of time. This rolled in so quickly that it was all about catching – and then keeping – up.
While more work is needed to remove the debris from the berms, our crews are keeping a close eye on the weather in order to respond should a Tumblegeddon 2: The Tumbleweeds Strike Back, happen. If it does and you find yourself in the middle of a storm of tumbleweeds, State Patrol Trooper Chris Thorson says to treat it like a blizzard. If you can't see the road, pull off to the right shoulder as far as you can, activate your hazards and wait for help to arrive.