Officials urge caution around snow plows and explain winter operations

The Bemidji area had its first snow event over the weekend bringing the plows out of their hibernation. With the machinery back on the road, officials are reminding the public of how their snow operations work and how to remain safe around the equipment.

A plow pushes snow along Bemidji Avenue North in downtown Bemidji. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- Across the map of north-central Minnesota, snow has returned recently causing snow plows to hit the streets once again.

Officials said it's important for residents to remember important factors going into the winter season as snow comes and machines head back out on the roads. For the Bemidji area, one key piece of information is knowing who plows what.

According to Bemidji Public Works Director Craig Gray, some city residents confuse Bemidji's roads with the county's. While they may connect or be near city roads, Gray said the following streets are handled by the county:

  • Lake Avenue Northeast.
  • Roosevelt Road.
  • Division Street.
  • Jefferson Streets.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation, meanwhile, handles State Highway 197, as well as U.S. Highways 2 and 71.
For the city, snow and ice control usually begins with an accumulation of 2 inches or more. That level was reached over the past weekend.

"When we get a snow event, especially one that's more than 4 inches, we plow all of our streets and make sure that before we leave, we get at least one pass on all of them," Gray said. "Our major corridors like Irvine Avenue, Division Street and 15th Street are much higher volume roads, so they get plowed a little bit faster and more often. But, we have enough rigs that we're able to pretty much get to every city street within an eight to 10 hour shift during a non-snow storm or blizzard."


Following the first day of plowing, Gray said the second day is where streets are widened and cleanup of remaining snow takes place.

As for the salting or sanding process, Gray said usage can vary depending on the weather conditions when plows are able to do so.

"Sometimes we will salt and sand beforehand if it's just a flurry or a light dusting of snow, as well as in cases of black ice," Gray said. "Other times, depending on the snow and the equipment we have, we're able to do some sanding at stop signs and intersections while we're plowing. Otherwise, we're usually looking at doing that the next day or so, as we look for slippery spots."

While sand is still being used on city streets, though, Gray said far less is being used now than in recent years. Even though salt is also not great for the lakes , Gray said at least less sand is ending up in Lake Bemidji and other wetlands as a result of less material being used overall. Another factor is the increase in an operation called pre-wetting.

"When we know a snowstorm is coming, we do what's called pre-wetting," Gray said. "We take a calcium chloride water solution and we manufacture sprayers and tanks for the back of our trucks. Adding that to the roads will limit how much ice is created and sticks to the road during and after a snow event. That's turned out to be beneficial, it's time saving and it saves money."

One issue Gray said the department is limited in its operations is controlling how much snow is pushed onto sidewalks. The city has an ordinance that requires property owners to clear their sidewalk space in front of their property.

"Just as a reminder for the people that live in town, the city does not plow residential sidewalks," Gray said. "A plow has to go a certain speed to make sure we get rid of the snow on the lane. There is no way for a plow to not be able to put some snow onto the sidewalk. Unfortunately, that's just a downside of being in Minnesota."

State level operations

One thing both Gray and MnDOT District 2 Assistant Engineer Paul Konickson wanted the public to know as winter arrives is to give the plows plenty of room to work.


According to MnDOT's website, drivers should be aware that snowplows turn or exit frequently and often with little warning, or travel over the centerline to further improve road conditions. Motorists are asked to stay at least 10 car lengths behind plows and not drive into snow clouds.

In total, MnDOT has nearly 900 snowplows with 1,400 full-time drivers and 250 backup drivers across the state. Those drivers plow nearly 12,000 miles of state and federal highways, and some routes can be as long as 50 miles.

In northwest Minnesota, to stay on top of snow events, Konickson said MnDOT partners with the National Weather Service to get forecasts and the agency also has technology that can determine how much salt and sand to use on the roads.

As for snow removal times, Konickson said it depends more on what the traffic levels are, but added that cleanup usually takes place at a later time.

Other MnDOT winter advisories include:

To check traveling conditions, MnDOT asks residents to visit before driving to see current conditions and to view highway or snow plow cameras.

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