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New push aims to keep drivers off Dog Valley Road during winter storms

Drivers stuck on Dog Valley Road (Washoe County Sheriff's Office)
Drivers stuck on Dog Valley Road (Washoe County Sheriff's Office)
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It's likely Interstate 80 will close this winter east of Reno due to snow and ice. It's also likely that drivers will try to find a way around the road closure and get themselves in trouble.

Every year, GPS services tell drivers that Dog Valley Road is a possible route to bypass the I-80 closure. It's a dirt road that starts in Verdi, Nevada and goes for miles past Grass Valley, California. Drivers try to take part of that road to get around the interstate closure near Truckee, Donner and other spots where there's bad weather west of Reno. Every year, drivers get stuck and need emergency crews to rescue them.

"During normal summer years it's a rough road but definitely during winter when you have snow or weather related issues you'll get a lot of people who get stuck up here," said Sgt. Fisher with Washoe County Search & Rescue.

The road is narrow and quickly gains elevation. Drivers don't realize when there's no snow at the base, it will quickly pile up at the top.

Dog Valley Road is in Sierra County in California but Washoe County responds to many of the calls because Washoe County has much of the resources with the search and rescue team.

"People just get up there and get stuck, they slide into the ditch, they're not prepared for it, they don't have the chains, may not have food, may not have water, they have kids," said Jack Wayman a volunteer with Washoe County's SAR team. "You name it we've seen it up there."

There are signs in Verdi warning drivers not to trust their GPS and that there's no access to I-80. It doesn't deter some people.

For decades the SAR volunteers have been pulling people off of Dog Valley Road. Most recently they responded to 14 calls in 2021.

"One year, '16, '17 right in there, we were up there for about two weeks in a row, almost every day, multiple times a day on some occasions," said Wayman.

One year Wayman said they responded to a tour bus whose driver dared to take the back road when the interstate was closed.

"Somebody’s going to die one of these days up here," said Wayman.

Both Washoe County and Sierra County Sheriff Office staff reached out to companies who provide GPS mapping services. They've asked that Dog Valley Road be removed as an alternative route when the interstate is closed.

"We have over the years and unfortunately we've never gotten a response back from any of the major mapping or GPS companies regarding getting those alternative routes in the winter time to show that it may not be the appropriate road to follow," said Mike Fisher, the Sierra County Sheriff.

News 4 reached out to Google, Garmin, and Apple. They are companies that provide GPS mapping. A Google spokeswoman said, "During extreme weather, our team works as quickly as possible to update routes using details from third party sources, feedback from the Google Maps community, and sudden changes to driving trends. We’ve reached out to the local authorities to learn more about the nuances of roads near Interstate 80. As always, we encourage everyone to stay alert and attentive, especially when driving during unpredictable weather. "

There was no response from News 4's several attempts to reach Apple or Garmin.

Sierra County Sheriff Mike Fisher doesn't want the road closed to cut off access to the public lands. He just wants a warning on the mapping during the winter.

"We’re looking at some barriers we can put up that will slow people down before they go up the road, not stop them but to make them aware so they can make an intentional decision if they plan to go up there with proper equipment," Fisher said.

Fisher said the county's public works department is making new signs to try to warn drivers of the winter danger on Dog Valley Road.

When emergency crews have to respond to a rescue, Washoe County sends it's volunteer SAR crew. In Sierra County, usually two of their deputies have to respond. There are only nine deputies on the entire staff to cover all shifts -- days, nights, and weekends.

"We sent two deputies out on the call and so often times it will strip us completely a patrol staff for four to six hours. When we go out and do the rescue," said Fisher.

Search and Rescue teams pull people off Dog Valley Road but not vehicles. Some tow trucks are even reluctant to get vehicles off the road. That's where 775 Offroad & Recovery comes in. The non-profit group with 67 volunteers use their own funds to recover vehicles.

"People were already out there helping people, we wanted to make it so that it was organized and people didn’t get hurt," said the group's president Joseph Pickett.

In years past, volunteers have stood in Verdi at the entrance to Dog Valley Road to educate drivers on days when I-80 is closed. One day last winter there was non-stop traffic.

"I think it was about 57 that we turned around and educated," Pickett said.

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Without the help of the GPS companies, there's no warning drivers not to take Dog Valley Road in the winter except for some warning signs the counties have placed at popular entrances to the dirt road. Sheriff's officials just hope people will use common sense.

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