City reviewing salting operations after 97 vehicles crash on icy roads, bridges

Road conditions were dramatically improved Friday, but the city faced a bit of traffic havoc Thursday evening.

Police closed 14 bridges until city crews could sand them, reopened them 4 hours later

Several vehicles were involved in this collision Thursday night on the South Perimeter Highway bridge over the Red River. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

The City of Winnipeg says its public works department will review its salting operations after icy bridges and streets led to crashes involving nearly 100 vehicles and forced police to close a number of bridges across the city for several hours Thursday evening.

Southern Manitoba saw a blast of winter late Wednesday and through Thursday, including wicked winds, a drop in temperatures and a mix of rain and snow.

Winnipeg police say the weather conditions resulted in crashes involving 97 vehicles at 15 different locations across the city, including on 14 different bridges. While no one was seriously hurt, nine people — including two infants — were taken to hospital in stable condition, while "countless" others declined medical attention for minor injuries, police said.

On Friday, the city's acting director of public works, Jim Berezowsky, told media the forecasting system used by the department had not predicted the sudden drop in temperatures and gusting winds that led to icing on bridges that started during the rush hour.
Nine people, including two infants, were transported to hospitals in stable condition while 'countless' others declined medical attention for minor injuries from Thursday's crashes, police say. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

"We had equipment out throughout the day on Thursday treating locations such as the bridges and overpasses — above-grade locations — along with quite a few intersections," he said, explaining the city's forecasting showed favourable conditions by Thursday afternoon, but that changed quickly.

"What happened from that point on was just a matter of what was forecasted versus what actually happened."

Berezowsky said the forecast the city was watching called for winds in the 50 to 60 km/h range and called for cooling temperatures later Thursday night.

He said crews were caught off guard by greater than forecasted wind speed, lower than expected temperatures, and freezing rain.

But CBC Manitoba meteorologist John Sauder doesn't think the event was unforeseen.
CBC meteorologist John Sauder says his forecast included the weather Winnipeg saw Thursday as early as Monday. (Wendy Buelow/CBC)

"Even on Monday morning in my forecast, I was talking about very strong winds gusting to 70 or 80 [km/h] in the morning, lasting through into the evening on Thursday, so this was well known and well forecast," Sauder said Friday, adding he doesn't see any evidence there was freezing rain Thursday night.

"That's not to say that the bridges weren't freezing up. They just didn't freeze up because of freezing rain."

Berezowsky said the city's forecasting method includes watching air surface temperature and precipitation forecasts, and uses special equipment that monitors the actual temperature of roads and bridges.

The City of Winnipeg's acting director of public works, Jim Berezowsky, says the city will review its salting operations after crashes closed 14 bridges Thursday. (CBC)

While he says crews were sent out as soon as public works officials saw a change in conditions happening Thursday, public works will be doing a review looking at its forecasting and how it differed from what happened on the ground.

"You're always looking for lessons learned," said Berezowsky.

Traffic bedlam

A wintry blast moved through southern Manitoba late Wednesday and through Thursday, first as rain and then snow. Around 6 p.m. Thursday, police began getting calls about "a large number of motor vehicle collisions that were occurring in quick succession throughout the city."

The city says its salting operations started around 7 a.m. Thursday but as the conditions worsened, the city deployed 20 salting trucks throughout the evening to treat the bridges across the city as quickly as possible.

"Under these types of winter weather conditions, bridges ice up first compared to regular roads and streets because there is no insulation under bridges. As well, the rain and extremely wet conditions yesterday meant that the salt we applied to the bridges and the roadway became diluted quickly," a spokesperson for the city said.

At its peak, the Winnipeg Police Service had 30 units — general patrol, community support and cadets — managing the scenes. Of the 97 vehicles involved in crashes, 55 had to be towed away.

Concerned about the dangerous conditions, police closed the 14 bridges until city crews could sand them. The bridges were reopened after four hours.

Thursday's bedlam is a good reminder for people to start adjusting their driving habits, police said.

"With the onset of temperatures below freezing … slower speeds, longer stopping distances and increased caution will be necessary for safe travel," a news release from the police service said.

In an email to CBC News, CAA Manitoba said the city "did the best with the information they had."

"We appreciate that they used road salt based on the day's weather forecast, and while it might seem extreme that the Winnipeg police closed the bridges, it likely saved lives and a lot of collision damage," spokesperson Erika Miller said in the statement.

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