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Call them unsung heroes of winter

While many were enjoying Christmas with their loved ones last month, Pierce County Highway Department employees were out trying to keep roads safe with freezing rain coming down.

These instances are normal for plow drivers like Mike Shields, a patrolman from Elmwood who's been on the job for 25 years between the village of Elmwood and working for Pierce County.

Shields has to be more careful about his holiday planning in case a storm occurs.

"Luckily I have an understanding wife," Shields said.

The Pierce County Highway Department works tirelessly, and sometimes that means Patrol Superintendent Alan Thoner is driving the roads at 3 a.m. to monitor conditions, seeing if drivers need to be called in.

Another man is Highway Commissioner Chad Johnson, who budgets money each year allocated by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT), making sure trucks are working properly and money is used efficiently.

Then there are guys like Shields. Between the county and state, 13 patrolmen are employed in Pierce County to keep roads and streets safe during the icy, snowy months of winter.

Working inside the budget

One of the biggest misconceptions Pierce County Highway Department officials want to clear up regards efficiency in its budget with employees and machinery.

Pierce isn't like most other counties in Wisconsin. Rather than 24-hour service, in cases of extreme weather, Shields and other patrolmen will work 18-hour shifts. Running crews 24 hours is simply too expensive.

Plus, state highways can only be plowed from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m., then continued maintenance can begin again the next day at 4 a.m.

Johnson said starting after Thanksgiving, two employees work 3 p.m. to 6 a.m. to make sure roads are kept clear.

When weather becomes more dangerous, Thoner understands the public's worry about roads not being 100 percent cleared, but due to trucks' speeds and dispatching of material, it's unlikely that roads will always be clear.

"It takes four or five hours to do a round. It starts snowing at 7, OK, guys go out, do what they can, but it keeps snowing," Thoner said. "All of a sudden those first roads are covered up (again)."

Johnson said the county could employ more people and buy more trucks, but with trucks costing $140,000 apiece and prices for salt running $75 dollars a ton, it's hard to justify it.

"If you are mowing your lawn, someone would say, 'Why don't you just hire another person and buy another lawn mower?'" Johnson said. "Then you'll be done twice as fast. Although it'll cost twice as much."

The county also cuts costs by combining salt and sand, creating a grip for cars while also slowly getting rid of ice. This mix saves a lot of money, costing $16 per ton as compared the $75 for pure salt. Patrolmen sometimes apply a salt brine (water and salt) that helps activate the salt more quickly.

Shields can go through 30 tons of the mix in just eight hours.

State, county and town roads

Since Wisconsin is the only state to have counties plow their state roads, counties are given money based on the winter severity. The state allocated $1.5 million to Pierce County this year, which went to their machinery equipment fund.

However, that money is also used towards mowing, road patching and other seasonal jobs.

Johnson said the DOT is not looking to make a change.

"We're on the hook for all that," Johnson said. "They pay us to do it. It's state money."

In comparing Wisconsin to Minnesota, Thoner said crossing the bridge into Red Wing, people see multiple types of plows on the roads. Counties and state work in conjunction there, rather than having one group do it like in Pierce County.

"They see our trucks out there on the state roads and they kind of see us doing it, but I don't know if they realize the state doesn't own any equipment like that," Thoner said.

Another factor to consider is town roads. Town employees maintain those roads, with costs being deferred to them.

"The state roads are usually just burned off and wet right away," Shields said. "County roads are still kind of snow covered, maybe a little slushy. Township roads haven't been plowed yet. They wait til it's done, then they plow it."

If you are interested in learning more about the Pierce County Highway Department's snow removal process, Johnson recommends looking at "Snow Removal FAQ" at:

class='subhead'>Snow plowing: Difficult job

There are more than 250 miles of road to cover in Pierce County. While that may not seem like much, Thoner said to think of these miles in lane miles. Both lanes must be plowed, so instead of 250 miles it's more than 500 miles to cover.

Plow drivers must maneuver around big trucks with almost 10 tons of material in the back while going 20-25 mph on the shoulders of roads so the material that's being put down doesn't fly off the road—all the while dealing with passing motorists.

"Year after year, I've had people pass me," Shields said. "I pull off, then they pass me because I'm not going fast enough.

"They get around and realize it's not plowed. I've had them pull into a side road, wait for me to come by and drive behind me."

Shields, Johnson and Thoner make clear that passing a snow plow during a storm, in a legal passing zone, is very risky. The plows have large signs on the back that remind drivers to stay at least 200 feet back.

Shields said on some of Pierce's steep, icy hills, occasionally he'll have to back down them because he can't make it all the way up. It happens every year and he has no choice but to go back down and try again.

"If I can't make it, they probably can't make it either," Shields said.

Inside the truck Shields multitasks like a symphony conductor—getting inches away from a guardrail, making sure the sand-salt mix is efficiently dropping, carefully pressing on the gas but not going too fast or too slow, activating the brine, and checking out six different mirrors for anyone behind him.

Shields and the other patrolmen in Pierce County have complicated jobs, but they don't seed praise—they understand it's just part of the job.

When asked if he gets scared while driving in weather that could cover his windshield with snow while going uphill in the middle of the night, Shields simply says: "No."

Matthew Lambert

Matthew Lambert joined the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal in December 2016 covering government, school board, and writing features about the community. He is a graduate of Winona State University with a Bachelor's degree in Journalism.