Idaho Transportation

Office of Communications
P.O. Box 7129
Boise, ID 83707
Fax: 208.334.8563


Winter camp 2008:

Snowstorms turn travelers into lodging companions;
ITD joins agencies, local citizens in rescue effort

No one expected the 700 to 800 motorists stranded last weekend in Swan Valley to be happy campers!

Blowing and drifting snow closed U.S. 26 between Swan Valley and Ririe just after lunch on Thursday, Feb. 7, and the severe conditions persisted for two days.

Traffic backed up more than a mile – both on U.S. 26 and on Idaho 31, which intersects U.S. 26 in Swan Valley – unable to proceed until Saturday afternoon. It didn’t help that motorists from Wyoming kept coming, disregarding the road-closed-ahead warning in Alpine, Wyo., only to find that they had to stop at the barricade in Swan Valley.

Neither did it help that more motorists than usual wheeled down Idaho 31, hemmed in by the closure of Idaho 32 and 33 in Teton Valley to the north because of inclement weather there.
All these roads were closed, making it impossible to go west.

By Friday afternoon, conditions worsened, and a protracted, cold night awaited the desperate travelers.

No five-star hotels
Swan Valley, population 235, has no five-star hotels. There isn’t even a Motel 6 to leave the light on for you.

But there are the Granite Creek Guest Ranch, the South Fork Lodge, and the Sleepy J Cabins (eight miles down the road in Irwin, population 155). The Saddle Sore Saloon and the South Fork Inn and Grill in Irwin also have a few rooms.

These establishments filled up in minutes.

Not to worry. With permission from ITD’s Assistant District 6 Engineer Karen Hiatt, Homeland Security Officer Mike Clements at the District 6 office in Rigby proposed the “Swan Valley Mass Care, Feeding and Rescue Mission.”

Here’s how it played out:

Friday, 4:05 p.m.
Working with Mike Taysom, manager of Bonneville County’s Emergency Services Department, Clements arranged a relief convoy of equipment and supplies to brave the elements for 27 miles from Ririe to Swan Valley.

Joining the rescue effort were the Red Cross, Eastern Idaho Public Health Department, Bonneville County Search & Rescue, and Madison County Sheriff’s Office.

Key members of the team were Taysom, Lt. Bruce Bowler of the Madison County Sheriff’s Office and Blaine Ball, supervisor of District 6’s special maintenance crew.

The convoy included:

  • A large V-plow truck from ITD’s Rigby shed driven by Ball.
  • A Bonneville County Search and Rescue truck pulling a 50-bed Red Cross shelter trailer.
  • A B onneville County Search and Rescue pickup pulling a 50-bed Red Cross shelter trailer, with an additional 50-bed capacity added.
  • A Madison County pickup pulling a 50-bed capacity mobile hospital trailer, augmented with additional 50-bed supplies from the Bonneville County trailer, all courtesy of federal grants.
  • An Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security pickup loaded with food for the rescue mission.

The town’s “grocery store” is a service station-convenience store, with few supplies. While it offers the community’s famous square ice cream (ice cream extracted with a square scoop), the treat is more popular in August.

9:20 p.m.
The V-plow led the convoy east past the roadblock on U.S. 26 near Ririe, blasting through drifts higher than the pickup trucks and through other stretches of snow up to four feet deep for hundreds of yards, all in blizzard conditions that were at times complete whiteouts.

“I had a wind-speed meter, but Mike (Taysom) declined my offer to open the window and stick his arm out to capture the true wind speed,” Clements reported.

11:30 p.m.
“It took us two hours to reach Swan Valley,” Clements said. “We set up the trailers at an LDS church, where volunteers were feeding motorists. We passed out blankets and cots.

“People were sleeping on the floor throughout the building. Shawn (of the Red Cross) counted 80 people, but knew he missed a number of them.

“We cooked chili and dispensed hot chocolate, then got to bed about 2 a.m.”

Saturday, 6 a.m.
Good morning Swan Valley!

“We checked on hundreds of motorists, who had slept in their cars,” Clements said. “Road and weather reports were discouraging.

“With Swan Valley residents, we served pancakes and hot chocolate at the church.”

8 a.m.
“ITD crews with rotaries and other equipment speculated the road might be ready for an evacuation convoy at 9 a.m.,” Clements said. “We posted this information at the shelter and distributed it to motorists in their vehicles.

“Motorists started lining up at 8:30 a.m., but at 9 o’clock ITD reported little progress.

“Mike (Taysom) and I provided updates to the long lines of vehicles on U.S. 26 and Idaho 31.
“We counted 248 vehicles, with 450 people, then 300 vehicles with 500 people – then we gave up counting.”

Swan Valley Mayor Ann Walsh said one of her friends counted 418 vehicles, many with more than one occupant.

“Most of the people were thankful for the updates,” Clements said.

Idaho State Police and Bonneville County deputies arrived “from the outside world” and reported a path was open, Clements said. “Evacuations began, with motorists honking and cheering like fans at a victory celebration,” he said.

“We left the 100-bed Red Cross shelter trailer and surplus food at the church in case it is needed again this winter,” Clements said.

“We sent the 50-bed Red Cross shelter trailer to Driggs in case of another emergency there,” he said. Severe weather has already isolated Driggs a couple of times this winter.
“Lieutenant Bruce Bowler returned Madison County’s trailer to Rexburg after the team helped him restock it.

“Our plan worked,” Clements said. “We served the public and proved our planning assumptions.”

“It was a good learning opportunity – in a surreal and hard work sort of way.

“I wish to thank ITD, whose cooperation, equipment and manpower made this mission possible,” Clements said.

ITD Emergency Program Manager Bryan D. Smith in Boise also thanked District 6 for facilitating the rescue effort. He noted the district found time to help these motorists while trying to reopen a total of eight routes in eastern Idaho closed by the winter storms.

ITD Chief Engineer Steve Hutchinson e-mailed District 6 Engineer Tom Cole to say: “Thanks to you and the crew. Let them know how much all of your efforts are appreciated.”

U.S. 26 reopened on Saturday, Feb. 9, at 2:45 p.m.

Published 2-22-8