Rain that unexpectedly turned to wet, heavy snow triggered a major power outage Thursday evening in the Durango area that left 3,000 La Plata Electric Association customers without electricity for an hour or longer.
Power started fluctuating shortly after 5 p.m. and was lost in many areas by 6 p.m. The heavy snow stuck to power lines, triggering the fluctuations and pushing tree branches into wires. The fluctuations caused LPEA’s computer system to shut off power as a safety precaution, said LPEA spokeswoman Indiana Reed.
Power was restored for many affected customers shortly after 7 p.m., but crews continued working into the night in some areas. Reed said about 700 customers still were without power at 9 p.m. and LPEA hoped to have all customers back online by midnight.
The outage hit downtown Durango during the evening rush hour and affected many customers in the Animas Valley. The outage also extended to the Edgemont Ranch area northeast of the city, Reed said.
The weather system hit hardest in the San Juan Mountains and in the nearby valleys, said Joe Ramey, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.
“The cold front did indeed drive the snow levels lower (in altitude) than we thought,” Ramey said. “That often happens when you have thunderstorm activity along cold fronts.”
Bill Butler, a local weather watcher in the Rafter J area, said he measured 4.1 inches of snow by Thursday evening. Flurries mixed with rain were expected to continue into the night.
Nancy Shanks, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation, said road crews were prepared to plow mountain passes as soon as the severity of the storm became apparent. CDOT crews measured about 8 inches of snow in Silverton and about 12 inches along Red Mountain Pass.
The wet, heavy snow caused several accidents Thursday evening on U.S. Highway 550 north of the city, she said. A few drivers abandoned their cars and opted to get rides with others.
Some cars were stuck in ditches, while other motorists were shaken up after experiencing adverse driving conditions, she said. The first snowstorm of the season tends to result in more accidents, Shanks said.
Several plow drivers between Cascade and Ouray were preparing to work through the night continuing the cleanup.
State troopers issued a mandatory chain requirement for the mountain passes when the snow showers commenced.
Shanks expressed concern for commuters facing the snowy aftermath on the roads this morning.
“People just need to be prepared for slick roads in the morning and take extra time getting to work, especially if traveling on 550,” she said.
On a brighter note, Kim Oyler, spokeswoman for Durango Mountain Resort, focused on a positive impact of the unusually early snowstorm.
“It’s great to see winter here in Durango,” she said. “Everyone at Durango Mountain Resort is gearing up for the ski season, and we’re totally stoked to see the snow. It gets us excited for a fantastic ski season.”
Ramey, with the National Weather Service, said the storm is expected to pass through the region Friday, possibly producing snow in Silverton and northward.