Hard work, short day for I-80 chain installers

Rush to chain up in the snow Wednesday morning, whiteout closes highway in afternoon
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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For anyone bold – or stupid enough – to drive high into the Sierra on Wednesday, the chain installers were waiting in blizzard-like conditions to move them along. Installers like Chris Lotito – garbed in their distinctive, bright yellow bibs – manned the Drum roadside chaining area, 40 miles east of Auburn. They were there to help people unable to put on their own or unwilling to brave the hostile elements Mother Nature was throwing at anyone who ventured outside. And, oh yes, there is a charge. It costs $30 for an installation and $15 on the back end of a mountain trek for removal. Caltrans sets the prices and provides permits but the installers are their own bosses. The snow was blowing horizontally as Lotito – who works construction jobs in the milder months – labored to chain up trucks, vans, semis and any other vehicles that came his way. He’s been doing it for 33 years. “It’s long hours, little pay, cold and miserable,” Lotito said, as the flakes flew by in waves of white. On a weekday with plenty of warning for drivers, only the die-hards were making the trek over Donner Summit. Those who were on the long, white road over the summit had put on their brave faces. Truck driver Chuck Morris was on his way from Oxnard to Sparks and waited patiently for his turn in a line of vehicles idling behind Lotito’s skilled chain installation. “I love it,” Morris said. “I live in Arizona and this is a change of pace. I wish I had my skis with me.” Morris said that his mantra in the snow is to be patient. “It’s what it’s going to be,” he said. “Mother Nature is Mother Nature and you can’t change it. And people should keep their distance.” “It’s a little unpleasant,” said Charlie Dewey of the Sci-Fi TV channel’s “Ghost Hunters” reality series. Dewey was bound for Worchester, Mass. and wasn’t enamored with the forced wait before attempting the Sierra crossing. “We have to be across the country in four days,” Dewey said. “We have storms in Massachusetts but normally we don’t get jumped on like this.” By midday, with snow levels dropping as low as Colfax and the snow continuing to blow sideways, chain installers had dropped down to a new chain control zone at Baxter. Caltrans has built several installation spots along I-80 that give installers enough room to do their job safely. Rochelle Jenkins, Caltrans spokeswoman, said chain requirements are enforced because traction devices are needed to traverse the wet, impacted snow nicknamed “Sierra cement.” “It has a high water content than what you see in some other areas of the country and that makes it icier,” Jenkins said. The chain installers provide a service but drivers can do the job themselves. Jenkins said she suggests practicing before heading for the hills. “Your neighbors will look at you funny but if you can do it in the driveway, it will help later on,” Jenkins said. Levi Hatfield, a frequent Sierra traveler, had the routine down to eight minutes Wednesday as he put chains on a van bound from Sacramento to the Nevada interior. “It’s not that much fun but it’s ‘1,2,3 and done,’” he said. “Now I’m ready to hit the road again.” Lotito, who said he prefers the term “chain installer” to the vernacular “chain monkey” that’s commonly used as a job description, worked steadily through the morning. But by 1 p.m., white-out conditions forced the California Highway Patrol and Caltrans to close I-80 to drivers in both directions. The road would stay closed for much of the afternoon. The storm had dropped more than a foot of snow by noon and visibility on the road was down to 50 yards or less. “This is a very hit or miss job,” Lotito said.