Blame last winter’s ‘Snowmageddon’ for this week’s ‘Tumblegeddon.’
On New Year’s Eve, gusting winds blew thousands of tumbleweeds across Highway 240 northwest of Richland, forcing the highway to close for 10 hours.
They even buried a semi truck, drawing the marvel of national and international news media.
The Irish Times said tumbleweeds flooded a “motorway.” The British Daily Mail called it a tumbleweed avalanche.
The New York Times referred to them as “nuclear tumbleweeds,” keying on the Hanford nuclear reservation location. The Hanford site’s nuclear reactors were used to produce plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program through the Cold War.
Historically, radioactive tumbleweeds have been found at Hanford. But the tumbleweeds that caused the New Year’s problem were blowing onto the nuclear reservation.
Washington state Department of Transportation crews worked for hours to find the buried cars Wednesday and to clear the road of the pesky weeds.
They used snowplows to push the spiky plants to the sides of the road and rolled over others to crush them, said Summer Derrey, spokeswoman for the department.
She confirmed that crews found tumbleweeds that blew into piles 20 to 30 feet high in the worst two-mile stretch of the highway, near the Rattlesnake Barricade secure entrance to the Hanford nuclear reservation.
On New Year’s Eve the wind was blowing from the west and southwest across the Hanford Reach National Monument wild lands.
The area had a bumper crop of tumbleweeds, or Russian thistle, this year after an unusually snowy winter and then a rainy spring soaked the ground.
That was followed by recent weather that has not been particularly windy.
But on New Year’s Eve the wind did pick up, with the Hanford Meteorological Service reporting the strongest winds of the month.
All of the Hanford stations on the flatland reported wind gusts near 50 mph New Year’s Eve, with those at higher elevations recording stronger gusts.
“Just the wind in the right direction, and it was a perfect tumbleweed storm,” said Dan Haas, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “They were all in the right spot for the wind direction with a bumper crop.”
Fish and Wildlife manages the national monument land on the west side of Highway 240 from Highway 225 northwest of Richland to Highway 24.
Russian thistle, although not native to the United States, is ubiquitous there and on the secure portion of the Hanford nuclear reservation on the other side of the highway.
They were brought into the country by Russian immigrants to South Dakota in 1873, Haas said. The thistles dry out and then tumble along, spreading their seeds.
The tumbleweeds tend to pile up along three-strand wire fences, but over the past 20 years Fish and Wildlife has started using some single-strand fencing, which keeps the tumbleweeds rolling free rather than building up on fencing. Hanford officials also have started using some single-strand fencing.
Although state officials said that they’ve never seen a tumbleweed storm like the one that closed Highway 240, federal officials are familiar with the problems they cause.
Ringold River Road on the Franklin County side of the national monument has had to be cleared of tumbleweeds with a road grader before.
At Hanford, contractor Mission Support Alliance’s biological controls group routinely clears tumbleweeds.
Since the New Year’s windstorm, crews have been clearing tumbleweeds piled up in roads on the portions of the site closed to the public, said contractor spokeswoman Rae Moss.
Now they are focused on removing tumbleweeds from around buildings and on fence lines, she said. Crews pile them up in rear-loaded trucks and compact them.
The state Department of Transportation was continuing to knock down big piles of tumbleweeds along Highway 240 on Thursday but was not planning to haul them away.
It estimated that would require about 5,000 truckloads, Derrey said.
Another windstorm is forecast for Friday night and Saturday, and the Department of Transportation plans to have extra crews standing by in case of a repeat of the New Year’s Eve tumblestorm.
The National Weather Service expects the wind to again come from the southwest.
The storm was terrifying for those caught in it.
Some called 911 and four vehicles were abandoned along the highway, with the last one not located until daylight Wednesday, hidden in a pile that topped the car by feet.