Potent ice storm brings Western Wash. to its knees

SEATTLE - Just as the snow ended across Western Washington, a monster Pacific Northwest ice storm swept in, coating Western Washington with freezing rain on Thursday and bringing much of the state to a standstill.

Roads and highways were closed, Sea-Tac Airport temporarily halted all flights for several hours and widespread power outages were reported, with the numbers growing by the minute. One man was killed by a falling tree near Issaquah.

Gov. Chris Gregoire proclaimed a winter storm emergency that would allow the activation of the Washington National Guard, if needed, and free up state agencies to take extraordinary steps to help local jurisdictions during the current winter storm.

The National Weather Service issued a rare Ice Storm Warning for the region through noon, then later extended it until 2 p.m. The Weather Service used the Emergency Alert System to break into Thursday morning broadcasts with the warning for the Seattle area and southwest Washington.

Freezing rain followed heavy snow in Western Washington, causing dangerous travel, power outages and threats that buildings could collapse. Freeways were closed intermittently by jackknifed semis and untold numbers of spinouts and accidents.

"It's a very dangerous situation," with a major impact on roads, said Brad Colman, the meteorologist in charge of the Weather Service office in Seattle. "We're expecting a significant impact on power. ... We have to worry about any infrastructure that can't bear the load," he said.

Puget Sound Energy spokesman Andy Wappler said more than 200,000 customers were without power by 2 p.m. He said the outages are scattered throughout hundreds of locations.

PSE has more than 150 line crews from several states already working to restore power, and 140 additional crews are en route from California, he said.

Drivers woke up to find treacherous conditions on area roads early Thursday, and ice was so bad at Sea-Tac Airport that officials halted all flights starting at 5 a.m. Airport spokesman Perry Cooper said one runway was cleared at about 7:30 a.m., and the first flight was able to land at about 8:30. A second runway reopened by 11 a.m.

Freezing rain is a super-cooled rain droplet that freezes to surfaces on contact, creating ice accumulations on roads, cars, trees, power lines - whatever it lands on.

While it makes for pretty pictures, it creates dangerous conditions on roads and can cause power outages as the weight of accumulating ice can topple power lines or knock tree branches into power lines.

The state Transportation Department closed 22 miles of Highway 18 from Interstate 90 to SR-164 because of falling trees.

Interstate 90 also was closed at Snoqualmie Pass for avalanche control. There was no immediate word on when the freeway would reopen.

Further east, westbound I-90 was closed near Cle Elum due to a multi-vehicle collision involving several semi-trucks, including two carrying hazardous material. Currently, the hazardous material in the trucks is still contained. There are no detours and westbound lanes are expected to remain closed for hours.

In addition, Sound Transit cancelled its Tacoma Link Service for the rest of the day, as ice continued to wreak havoc.

Many schools remained closed Thursday due to heavy snow and ice, and road crews throughout the area are working to keep highways and main routes clear.

Officials urged drivers to use extreme caution and expect delays throughout the day, as police were already responding to numerous crashes and spinouts.

Thursday's ice problems comes on the heels of the largest snow event to strike the Pacific Northwest since at least 2008, with some cities having to go back decades to find a snowier period.

Olympia Airport reported 11 inches of new snow Wednesday, making it the third snowiest day on record. Chehalis reported 17 inches, while, snow totals of 2-6 inches were common across the central Puget Sound area. Sea-Tac Airport officially reported a 5 inch snow total.

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