The most recent winter storm came on fast.
While many schools and communities in Kootenai County braced for impact as early as Tuesday night, Shoshone County remained in “wait and see” mode until Wednesday morning — exactly when the snow decided to fly.
As much as 8 inches fell in different spots along the Silver Valley floor, with more than double that in higher elevations. This made commuting an arduous task, with lines of slow-moving traffic and delays created by those who didn’t take their time and ended up causing crashes.
Shoshone County relies heavily on the services of crews from the Idaho Transportation Department as well as county road crews to ensure the roads are cleared. But the people who see the most action when roads turn white are first responders and law enforcement officers, who only arrive on scene when things have gone very wrong.
Both Shoshone County Fire Districts 1 and 2, and the Shoshone County Sheriff’s Office respond to traffic accidents year-round. In wintertime, however, handling and clearing accidents becomes more urgent due to the likelihood of another popping up.
“Crashes, no matter what time of year, take up a considerable amount of our time due to the imminent danger they pose to other drivers, such as blocking vehicles or debris,” Sheriff Holly Lindsey said. “Crashes oftentimes require more than one deputy — one deputy to handle the crash, one or two other deputies (sometimes even more depending on the situation) to help with traffic control.”
This can spread an already-thin department even more so, especially if other types of emergency calls come in.
SCFD No. 1 Chief John Miller is in the same boat but has a slight edge over Lindsey when it comes to being able to rely on outside help.
“We always have to call back off-duty career folks along with our volunteers to help out on almost a daily basis,” Miller said. “However, within the last week, both fire districts needed extra hands on deck. Our staffing is very minimal due to funds and are only capable of handling one call at a time without the assistance of calling in people.”
Before the last snowstorm, the SCSO had responded to almost 50 traffic-related calls for service since the calendar flipped to 2024, many of them with EMS accompaniment. That number has increased in the past 72 hours. Lindsey believes that the public does try to govern itself when the weather takes a turn for the treacherous, but there are always a few people out there who try to cut corners when it comes to safe winter driving.
“On Wednesday, we had two crashes that occurred in the morning and we lucked out the rest of the day,” Lindsey said. “It’s been my experience that when it’s snowing really hard, people tend to slow down and we don’t have as many crashes — spun-out vehicles, yes, but not as many crashes. It’s when, after the snow gets plowed, clearing the roads, that’s when the crashes happen. And typically it’s because people either don’t have snow tires, are driving too fast for conditions, or they are following too close to other vehicles and cannot stop in time.”
The remote nature of Shoshone County also presents its own share of challenges for first responders, with places like Lookout Pass, Dobson Pass, numerous gulches and backroads, many of them with homes that have driveways that are difficult to impossible for emergency vehicles to get in and out of.
“The challenges are mainly weather- or safety-related,” Miller said. “Working on any roadway is always a major safety concern. Everything thing from keeping your footing and your head on a swivel when working on the road. We typically use a fire truck or ambulance to help block the scene for us in the winter.”
“There are many times where our team has gotten stuck on Lookout due to spun-out vehicles and semi trucks which cause traffic jams,” Lindsey said. “This causes other vehicles to get spun out and so forth and so on. There are also times when our office does not respond to spun-out traffic jams on Lookout because our county would be left with no deputies to respond to calls if they got stuck.”
With the majority of the accidents occurring on Shoshone County’s Interstate 90 corridor, Lindsey and the other local law enforcement agencies must rely on help from Idaho State Police.
“We do receive a great deal of assistance from ISP and even have a resident Trooper, but sometimes the crashes are so frequent that even ISP’s assistance is not enough,” Lindsey said. “If we know a severe storm is coming through, we can call ISP and they will send us extra troopers to assist if they have enough staffing to do so. But, like any other law enforcement agency in the nation, ISP is below staffing levels, so getting extra coverage varies.”
Lindsey said 2023 was the deadliest year on Idaho’s highways in 20 years, with 276 fatalities — a number of them were weather-related. So far, none of the accidents in Shoshone County have been fatal, and that’s exactly how Miller and Lindsey hope to keep it.
The most recent winter storm came on fast.