It’s only snowed 19 times on the last day of November in the past 119 years of Gillette’s history.
But the snowstorm that struck the community Saturday packed a wallop as it created blizzard-like conditions, almost all which lived up to the forecast. The snow and winds combined to create major snowdrifts and make traffic difficult on roads in and outside of Gillette.
The community received at least 6 inches of snow, according to the lone report made to the National Weather Service’s Rapid City office at 9:49 a.m. Saturday just 2 miles from the downtown area.
That’s what David King, director of the Campbell County Emergency Management, also estimated.
While the weather was as advertised, it didn’t create day-long whiteout conditions because the wind didn’t reach levels the forecasters predicted. As a result, King didn’t have to open an operations center for emergencies or to help stranded drivers since highways and roads in the area remained open, unlike much of Wyoming.
But the wind still took a toll. The ice before the snow was Friday’s battle. On Saturday, the wind was the biggest problem for snowplows because it caused drifting and made crews repeat clearing areas they had already cleared, said city spokesman Geno Palazarri.
Conditions on Friday, with freezing drizzle, actually kept emergency responders hopping more than the conditions did Saturday, King said.
“It was much worse yesterday,” he said Saturday. “Today was not anywhere near what it was like yesterday. We didn’t get the winds like they said. … The snow still was moving around, though.
“I’m sure it was a disappointing shopping weekend for some,” King said. “It’s one of those things. This was well advertised.”
If the official weather records show Gillette received 6 inches of snow Saturday, as expected, it’s a record breaker for the day in the community.
The snowfall record for Nov. 30 in Gillette — 5.1 inches — was set in 2000. It’s also well below the snow levels recorded throughout northeast Wyoming and other communities in the region.
Reports sent into the National Weather Service recorded 23 inches at Central City, South Dakota, at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, 12 inches at Rapid City as of noon, 12 inches in Beulah and 11 inches in Sturgis, South Dakota, at the same time.
The city’s official weather station in the Wastewater Treatment Plant recorded wind speeds at 32 mph at 3 p.m. Saturday, with gusts of 40 mph.
It’s likely Gillette set a new snowfall record on Saturday. A total of about 10.5 inches of snow fell in November as well.
That also puts Gillette within reach of one of its best years for precipitation overall, depending on what happens weather wise in December.
The weather station at the airport also recorded 0.16 inches of precipitation Friday.
Palazzari said crews would continue to keep the priority routes driveable on Saturday evening.
“As the wind dies down, we will then be able to make headway on clearing residential areas,” he said. “We will continue clearing streets through the night and into tomorrow until we have everything clear.”
He added that the city’s equipment was holding up well. One truck broke down earlier in the day but the city’s fleet mechanic was quickly able to get it back on the road.
Accidents on icy roads
At least one accident, a one-car rollover, was blamed on the icy conditions Friday, resulting in two of five people in the minivan involved being taken to the hospital.
A 66-year-old woman was driving the 2003 Honda Odyssey just west of Sleepy Hollow on Union Chapel Road. She was driving about 40 mph and lost control because of the icy roads. The driver and a 43-year-old woman who was a passenger were taken to the hospital, the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office reported. Their conditions are unknown. Four people had to be extricated from the minivan by the Campbell County Fire Department.
Also on Friday morning, an unknown vehicle hit and damaged a crosswalk at the intersection of Warlow Drive and Gillette Avenue. The sign contained solar panels and an electronic crosswalk button, which were damaged and cost about $1,000, according to a report from the Gillette Police Department. Officers were unable to determine a suspect because of the level of ice on the road, but the city of Gillette was notified of the damage.
The fire department also was kept busy Friday responding to one-vehicle rollover crashes in which the icy conditions may have played a role. Crews responded to seven of eight calls of rollovers.
Those calls began at 7:43 a.m. at exit 124 of I-90 where they found a vehicle on its side, and continued auntil at 3:53 p.m. on Union Chapel Road where four people were extricated from the vehicle.
Camo walked through the hallways of the Campbell County jail on Tuesday night, tail wagging, ears pinned back against his head.
He walked alongside his handler, Officer Ryan Mussell. Camo, a 5-year-veteran with the Gillette Police Department, had spent the last few hours in Mussell’s patrol car, waiting for an assignment.
The Campbell County Sheriff’s Office received an anonymous tip that there were drugs somewhere in the jail. Detention officers cleared out the blocks, and Mussell walked through each cell, making sure there wasn’t anything sharp.
Camo lay on the floor, his head following Mussell’s every move.
Mussell then gave Camo the go-ahead to begin sniffing. He led the dog on his leash as Camo sniffed over and under beds and around bookshelves.
Most of Camo’s drug sniffs last a few seconds. Tuesday night, he was in the jail for nearly an hour, sniffing through a couple of dozen cells.
He started panting, and he stood up to get a drink from a sink in one of the cells.
He didn’t find any drugs. When he was done, he hopped into the car, ready for a little bit of rest before his next assignment.
For the detention officers, Camo was a welcome change to the routine. Even some of the jail’s temporary residents were excited to see the dog.
“Thank you for your service,” one inmate said.
“Can he stay with us?” another asked.
It’s like this wherever Camo goes, Mussell said.
“He’s the star of the show,” he said.
He’s always alert, even at home
Camo is one of six K-9 units working in Gillette between the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office and the Gillette Police Department.
Both departments have been active over the years in ensuring that there are K-9s to work potential crime scenes in the community.
But the K-9 teams are more than just work partners.
Mussell sees Camo more than his own family. When he starts getting ready for work, Camo wags his tail, ready for another workday.
“For him, it’s all one big game,” Mussell said. “It’s based on rewards and things like that. When he finds that drug odor, he thinks he’s finding his toy.”
Even when Camo’s at home, he’s always alert, waiting for his next task.
When Mussell responded to a domestic dispute at a motel Tuesday night, Camo sat in the car, whining occasionally, pacing back and forth, waiting for his handler to return.
“When I walk back to the car, I always see the dog ears, looking out the window, looking for me,” he said. “I love that.”
Most K-9s work for five to eight years, Mussell said. Sheriff’s Cpl. Gary Spears has had Rocky for nine years. Rocky retired earlier in November after breaking his leg. Project K-9 Hero, a nonprofit organization that helps with medical costs, food and end of duty services for police and military dogs across the country, has paid for Rocky’s medical costs.
All dogs have to retire at some point, and Rocky is Spears’ third K-9, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
“I’ve seen it before,” Spears said of Rocky’s injury. “But my own dog, and my last dog, it was very heartbreaking.”
Mussell has thought about the day when Camo retires. The two have worked together for five years, and Mussell thinks Camo has another year or two left in him before he retires.
“I don’t look forward to that day,” he said.
Mussell recently picked up his car from the shop, and he got a small taste of life post-Camo.
“I was driving home and I didn’t have him back there. Just not hearing him shuffling back and forth was weird,” he said.
When he goes out on a call, he has to account for not just his own safety, but Camo’s as well.
“You have to run a bunch of scenarios in your head. If this happens, is it OK if I send my dog?” he said.
When training dogs to find drugs, K-9 handlers do not get their dogs addicted to drugs, Spears said.
Technically, the drug dog is trained to indicate on the odor of drugs, not the drugs themselves, Mussell said. A positive indication does not always mean there are drugs present. Someone may be wearing clothes that have that drug smell on them.
“Just because he doesn’t find anything doesn’t mean he’s not doing his job correctly,” Mussell said.
“Sometimes you’ll hear the bad guys say, ‘You made that dog sit!’” he added. “We don’t make our dogs sit. The dog doesn’t get anything out of lying about it.”
Spears said some people believe their dog would make a good drug dog because it’s a good hunter or likes to retrieve things. It takes much more than that, Spears said. Most dogs will lay down after five to 10 minutes of playing fetch and chew the toy.
“The type of dog we want is the dog that’s going to get (the toy) and bring it back every time until you stop,” Spears said. “That’s what carries them through the long searches we do, is that desire to go search for it every single time.”
Dogs have many natural abilities that drive them to do what they do, Spears said.
“We use all those things and make it a game,” he said. “We use it as a tool, and they love it.”
It’s up to the handlers to make sure their dogs don’t overwork themselves.
“They run 110 percent when they work, they don’t know slow,” Spears said. “There’s no low gear, it’s full blast all the time.”