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Helena snowplows

Helena's fleet of snowplows await the next winter storm. The city has purchased two additional plows this year to ensure it can plow at full capacity while plows are repaired.

Helena has seen plenty of winter weather already this year, but Nov. 1 is a special date as the city embarks on its second year of snow codes aimed at helping keep streets and sidewalks clear.

Early storms allowed the city’s transportation department to troubleshoot some issues on its snowplows, said David Knoepke, transportation systems director.

“We found a couple mechanical issues with the trucks, which is nice that they happened during these smaller events where if it was during a big snowstorm, then we’d be down a truck or two,” he said.

Fall and spring when snow typically falls and melts means plow trucks, which the city uses for dump trucks in the warmer months, must be “built up” for plowing for each storm.

When two inches or more snow falls, plow drivers go on 12-hour shifts clearing emergency snow and priority routes while contractors work through neighborhoods. The state also plows several major thoroughfares in the city limits.

The city does look closely at conditions when it decides to plow.

“When the ground is warm or the temperatures are warm that snow that gets on the ground gets a layer of slush underneath and as we’re plowing we get snowballs,” Knoepke said. “So we make every attempt to plow the roadway, but if we’re creating those big snowballs they can roll off or damage vehicles or get stuck in people’s driveways. There is a decision point where we will elect to not do as much plowing if we know the temperatures are going to be warm the following days.”

The city currently has 10 plows with two more coming on board in the next couple of weeks. The additional two plows will allow the city to remain at full force even if one or two are in need of repairs, which is fairly frequently for snowplows, Knoepke said.

From Nov. 1 to April 15 the city enforces its snow codes. Last year the city instituted codes which require that boats and campers be removed from streets citywide, and that if at least 2 inches of snow is forecast by the National Weather Service, that vehicles be removed from emergency snow routes until plowing is complete.

“We saw some really good results on the emergency snow routes,” Knoepke said. “It took a couple storms but the citizens of Helena were really great to deal with. They got their cars off the emergency snow routes, we got them plowed, we got them cleared, and I think was probably the clearest you’ve seen 6th Avenue and Benton in a long time.”

If boats and trailers are not removed from streets or if vehicles are not moved for plows, they may be towed at the owner’s expense. Anyone with questions on streets may call 447-1566.

“We’re hoping that with these couple early storms and hopefully ease into winter that hopefully everyone will remember about the emergency snow routes and the trailer parking and that collaboration will be back and we’ll be working together to make sure everything is as clear as possible as quick as possible,” he said.

The city has packaged all of the snow codes on its website at www.helenamt.gov including those for sidewalks, which are typically the responsibility of residents and business owners. The city uses a clock on its website that starts once snow stops falling and starts again with falling snow. Complaints about unshoveled sidewalks may only be made when the clock expires.

City public information officer Rebecca Connors says she hopes to be more active with communication this year including alerts about snow removal and priority routes on social media.

The city has hired two additional code enforcement officers who will mostly concentrate on sidewalk snow removal. If snow is not shoveled following a storm, residents or business owners may be billed for shoveling by the city.

The record cold snap that slammed the Helena area last March and February led to widespread frozen water service lines. The city owns the water mains, but residents and business owners are responsible for the line that feeds their home or business.

“The responsibility of the homeowner or business owner is from the main to their place of business or residence,” said Heath LaFromboise, Helena’s water maintenance supervisor. “But yes, we definitely want to know because last year how we responded to this, even though we don’t own the service lines, I sent all my guys out on every one of them.”

Last year the city received 138 reports of frozen service lines compared to 14 the previous winter. The true number of frozen service lines may have been double that due to residents taking care of the issue on their own without contacting the city.

When city workers respond, they can often offer assistance to private plumbers with shutting off water at the street and helping locate both the street shut-off and the shut-off in the home.

While most freezing begins where the water comes into the building, some of last year's cases spread all the way to and into the water main. 

If weather is expected to fall below zero for an extended period, both Knoepke and LaFromboise recommend tricking water from faucets to prevent freezing. To ask questions about water lines or to report frozen lines, call 447-1567.

If a plumber is called in, Knoepke cautions residents to ensure devices used to thaw pipes are certified for use in lines for potable water. With the number of frozen lines last year, the city received some reports of “fly-by-night” plumbers who used equipment that had also been used on sewer lines, which creates a risk of contamination.

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Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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