Just Blame it on the Weather Gods Nor-Easter Fizzles but the Plows Didn’t

Ed Fontaine is fried. It’s a little after 6 a.m. Friday and he’s pulled another all-nighter. He’s tired of plowing snow, tired of the ups and downs of Chesterfield Hill, tired of blind corners on Hurricane Road. He wearily pulls his city-owned orange dump truck up to the fuel pumps at 350 Marlboro St., fills the tank and drives off into the weekend for a long rest.

Fontaine, of Swanzey, is a 28-year snow-plowing veteran of the Keene Highway Department. Wearing a Stihl baseball cap, he’s been on snow-removal duty for the last 30 hours or so, having first been called in Thursday at midnight. That’s when the forecast was for a straightforward 12 to 18 inches of snow.

But, this being New England, weather systems can change rapidly between the 6 and 11 p.m., forecast.

“It’s been a tough one,” he says. “Heavy, wet stuff. Makes you slide all over the place. Can’t steer theKeene Highway Superintendent Bruce Tatro began paying close attention to the forecast on Tuesday. Like Fontaine, Tatro’s also a 28-year veteran of the highway department ” the last 16 as superintendent ” and it’s his job to map out snow-plowing strategy. By Wednesday, when the National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning, Tatro and Co. were on full alert.

The snow was expected to begin Thursday between 1 and 3 a.m., so Tatro called in his crew at midnight to pre-treat the roads.

Keene uses 15 plows, eight of which also spread salt and sand, and four sidewalk tractors. They treat 123 miles of roads, plus the four lanes of Main Street, West Street and Winchester Street require extra attention. Every driver has his own route. No one goes home until everyone’s done.

“The guys really take pride in doing a good job,” says Tatro, who is on the board of directors of the N.H. Road Agents Association. “We’re typically on the higher end of technology than most towns. And we’re not afraid to try new things.”

One of those new things has come to be known as “magic minus zero,” or “magic salt.” It’s a concoction of magnesium chloride and a byproduct of brewing beer that is sprayed on the salt. It looks and smells like molasses.

Salt is effective only at 20 degrees and above; “magic” salt melts snow down to 15-below. Highway officials from other cities and towns have come to take a look this winter.

“It’s like an anti-freeze for salt and it’s less corrosive, more environmentally friendly,” Tatro says. “That last storm when everyone’s roads were snow-covered and ours were black-topped? That’s why.”

Not all experiments have been successful. A few years ago, Keene tried using a chemical that was supposed to limit the bouncing effect of salt hitting the road. It didn’t work.

Long before the snow falls, the trucks and plows are inspected by the fleet crew. Tires are kicked and air pressures checked, plow edges sharpened, spreaders readied. That kind of thing.

“We do (maintenance) a couple of days ahead of time. We don’t want to say, “Oops, it’s time to go salting and my truck’s broken,” – Tatro says.

Tatro labels 12 to 18 inches “a more than once around” storm, so his crew is prepared for an around-the-clock marathon. It’s not unusual to work 30 straight hours with only short breaks. If the storm lingers for days, “extended operations” kick in and members of the water department will relieve the highway department.

Before the roads turn white, they are treated with a salt-based brine that helps prevent icing (300 pounds per lane mile). The spread rate is computer-controlled, so the same amount is applied whether the truck is traveling 5 mph or 25 mph. Tatro remembers when they shoveled salt down a hole in the truck’s body to the spreader.

But this week’s storm is tricky and confounds the forecasters. Instead of snowing, it begins as a heavy rain. It turns to a thick, wet snow at the onset of Thursday’s morning commute.

Plows generally aren’t sent out until there are 2 inches of snow. In Keene, Thursday’s storm barely meets that standard, but the water content is unusually high.

Ideally, the goal during the day is keep the roads passable, “get people home from work,” Tatro says. Evening is when plows will take a break, letting the snow pile up on secondary roads. The real work gets done between midnight and 6 a.m. Anything to be out of traffic, Fontaine says.

“We get the finger a lot; get sworn at a lot,” says Fontaine, who drives the oldest truck in the fleet, a 1990 Ford that will soon be retired.

On Thursday, the Keene crews plow until about 5 p.m., then return at 11 p.m., when the tail of the storm surprisingly whips around and dumps another few inches on the ground. Fontaine says there wasn’t much they could do to prevent the coating of ice underneath.

“These storms are the worst. You can see it right there,” he says, pointing to the ice-crusted surface.

Freezing rain is the most frustrating and most expensive because of chemical usage. In Keene, snow presents challenges on the four-lane roads, where two plows will work in tandem. The hills can also be tricky, Tatro says, along with winding Hurricane Road.

The new rotary on Court Street in front of Cheshire Medical Center hasn’t been a problem. “It hasn’t been as horrible as we thought it was going to be,” Tatro says.

Mailboxes are the most common casualties of plowing, and Tatro says usually it’s the snow being pushed against them that knocks them over. The city will replace, for free, all mailboxes damaged by city plows, as long as the boxes met U.S. Postal Service regulations.

Other common complaints are driveways filled by passing plows and unplowed sidewalks. Tatro says it takes about two days to plow all sidewalks after a heavy snowfall.

Snow is temporarily piled up at various locations inside the city. After a night off, the highway crew will start hauling those piles to a 15-acre plot at its old headquarters on 580 Main St.

“And then we’re ready for the next storm,” Tatro says.