The past week has been uncharted territory for local retailers in the tire chains business. After four years of practically no snow, the “chains required” status for the Generals Highway couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
Ever since he purchased the Totem Market and Deli with its tire chain business four years ago, Greg Lockhart wondered if this day would ever come. This year, the tire chains demand has been nonstop since Christmas week, and even with two new local outlets, there is nowhere near the local inventory to keep up with demand.
None of the five local tire chain retailers — Kaweah General Store, Three Rivers Chevron, Totem, and newcomers Jerky This and Gateway Restaurant and Lodge — could have foreseen this much chain business coming. On Tuesday, Dec. 29, with the three-day New Year’s weekend approaching, the tire chains retailers were scurrying about looking for more inventory.
On the morning of December 30, Rocky Powell, who assists in the day-to-day operations at the Totem, said there are currently five installers working full time.
“If I had the chains we could keep 10 installers busy most of the day,” Rocky reported. “On Sunday, there were so many vehicles here that some visitors were trying to double park in the middle of Highway 198.”
All the Totem’s vacation rentals were booked too but Rocky said most of those folks bring their own chains.
“For the sizes we don’t have we’re sending some folks back down to Walmart or Kragen Auto Parts,” Rocky said. “All we have left right now are the sizes that fit the really small cars like the Prius.”
The cable chains rent for about $30 and are due back in 24 hours. The average life of a set of rentals is four uses. By the fourth rental, at least one of the two chains breaks. Rocky said renters are instructed to drive 15 mph and not to drive on dry pavement with the cables on.
Some of these visitors are new to the mountains and immediately forget the instructions, Rocky said. In fact, one patron called 911 when a bear looked in the window of his rental cabin across the street from the Totem.
“He told me he thought the bear was going to eat his children,” Rocky said.
California law mandates that tire chains are in the vehicle when entering a “chain control area.” That means that visitors cannot enter Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks during the winter months without being in possession of tire chains.
And the more snow there is in the mountains, the more people will want to visit and experience the winter landscape and snowplay opportunities. Local chain retailers expect the flush times to continue as long as the snow keeps falling.