They say the impossible has happened when hell — or the San Juan Islands — freezes over. During the week of Feb. 6, the latter happened.
“We’re lulled into thinking a little sprinkle is pretty, then it’ll go away,” said Bill Cumming, who has lived on San Juan Island for 37 years.
Not this time. By Thursday, Feb. 9, the National Weather Service in Seattle reported 3.6 inches of snow on Orcas, 4.5 on Lopez and 3 to 6 inches on San Juan Island.
Public schools on San Juans’ three main islands were delayed a few hours throughout the week and even closed a few days on Lopez and Orcas. It had been five years since Orcas Island School District officials called a snow day.
“We were feeling optimistic, then snowmageddon hit on Wednesday afternoon,” said Orcas Island School District Administrative Assistant Cathy Ferran.
According to Jack Giard, who’s been collecting weather reports on Lopez Island since 1979, the last island snowfall over three inches deep was on Jan. 18, 2012.
It’s a change from the last few seasons of warmer weather caused by El Nino — the warming of the Pacific ocean — to the colder weather of its opposite pattern, La Nino.
“It’s colder and we’ve gotten a lot of air coming from the Fraser River Valley,” said local meteorologist, blogger and professor Cliff Mass. “That cold air, coming out, affects the San Juans quite a bit so you got snow.”
The snow prompted San Juan Island School District Superintendent Danna Diaz to drive around the island at 5 a.m. to assess the roads to determine the districts’ late arrivals. It made the 20 fulltime San Juan County Public Works road crew employees wake anytime it snows — day or night — to plow and salt the roads. It even caused approximately 10 car accidents throughout the county by Thursday, Feb. 9, as reported to the sheriff’s office.
“Five dollars worth of salt is worth preventing sidewalk accidents,” said Mike Sharadin, owner of Mike’s Cafe, as he left Kings Market with a bag of salt that Thursday.
Friday Harbor Town Administrator Duncan Wilson said the town has two plows that officials attach to trucks to clear snow off roads. The town can also ask the county for additional services if needed.
“We don’t have a whole lot of vehicles because this kind of weather just doesn’t happen often enough,” said Wilson.
Russ Harvey, San Juan County Public Works operations manager, said each of the San Juans’ large islands has four snowplows and three pieces of equipment to disperse sand. There are seven road crew members per ferry-served island, who collectively work 20-hour shifts during a snowfall.
“Our first priority is to make sure we can get equipment out of fire stations, clear the bus routes and also clear the main roads to the ferry landings so commerce can continue,” said Harvey.
This storm, said Giard, was nothing like the ice storm of 90, which brought 106 mph winds from the northeast and knocked down an estimated million trees on Lopez; or the storm of 96, when it snowed 36 inches over six days — the largest snowfall since 1922.
But the snow isn’t just a nuisance.
“You can build snowmen,” said Sienna, a second grader at Friday Harbor Elementary School.
“You can hit your little sister with snowballs,” added her classmate, Owen.
Perhaps, said Cumming, enjoying the snow is the difference between work and play.
“Now that I’m retired, I enjoy it for its beauty,” said Cumming. “But, I guess if you have to work in it, you want it to dissipate as soon as possible.”
Wilson recalls February days at 70 degrees. Mass said predictions for next winter’s weather can’t be made until the spring. Until then, islanders can predict together.
“Well, at least the snow gives everyone something to talk about,” said Marion Wilkie of Friday Harbor.