Back-to-back winter storms are bringing deep snow, icy roads and hazardous travel to Southwest Colorado this holiday weekend. Here’s the latest:
UPDATE – 12:30 p.m.:
The Colorado Department of Transportation issued a warning Thursday for those traveling in Southwest and Northwest Colorado and along the Interstate 70 over the holiday weekend.
The forecast for the Four Corners region is for light snow in the afternoon Thursday, with heavier snow on Friday. The National Weather Service predicts 3 to 6 inches of new snow, with higher amounts at higher elevations along U.S. Highway 160 and Colorado Highway 491, including the towns of Mancos and Hesperus. The Pagosa Springs area is expected to receive heavy snow also.
Up to 20 inches of snow is expected in the southern and central mountains through Saturday morning, and all mountain passes, including those along U.S. Highway 550, are expected to be impacted.
UPDATE – 10:40 a.m.:
The break in the snow storm that started Wednesday afternoon allowed crews to reopen U.S. Highway 491 outside Cortez Thursday morning, the Colorado Department of Transportation announced. It was closed after a 19-vehicle pileup involving several semi tractor trailers.
All other area roads and highways also have reopened, including Wolf Creek Pass, which had delays Thursday morning for avalanche control.
The reprieve is expected to last until early evening Thursday, said Dennis Phillips, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
The snow is forecasted to get heavier around midnight and continue through Christmas Day.
“Sunrise through noon (Friday) looks like a period of some pretty heavy snow,” he said.
When the storm moves out of western Colorado it is expected to settle over eastern New Mexico.
The icy roads likely won’t have a chance to melt during the day on Thursday before the next storm sets in. The high is expected to be only in the low to mid-20s, he said.
“This storm is quite cold,” he said.
UPDATE – 7:45 a.m.:
Travelers should expect two hour delays on U.S. Highway 160 at Wolf Creek Pass while avalanche control work is being completed, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation.
CDOT also advises travelers going between Cortez and Cahone that CO-491 is closed from milemarkers 37-53 due to multiple vehicles, including semitrailers, sliding off the road.
Snowy conditions are expected to continue through Christmas, according to the National Weather Service.
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Vehicles off the road was the story of the day Wednesday, when, while it’s hard to believe, complications from the snowy weather were worse than Tuesday’s.
By the evening, U.S. Highway 160 from Farmington Hill to Three Springs and Main Avenue from 38th Street to County Road 203 had been closed for a time because of the icy road conditions, and U.S. Highway 491 north of Cortez was the scene of multiple-vehicle crashes involving 19 vehicles.
The Durango Fire Protection District asked people to stay off the roads because of extremely dangerous conditions shortly after 6 p.m.
“We have traffic issues every which way in every direction,” said Fire Marshal Karola Hanks. “If people are home, they should stay home. If they’re trying to get home, maybe they should stop into a restaurant downtown and have dinner. Please stay off the roads so we can give crews time to work.”
Still more snow is coming, said meteorologist Megan Stackhouse of the Grand Junction office of the National Weather Service, from 5 to 7 inches worth. After a short break Wednesday night and Thursday during the day, the next storm is scheduled to move in at about 5 p.m. Christmas Eve and continue through Christmas and into Saturday.
And because it’s going to remain cold, we won’t see much melting, she said. Highs will be in the mid to high 20s, with lows in the single digits into mid-week next week.
This is heavy, wet snow coming out of the Pacific Northwest, Stackhouse said. The La Plata County Office of Emergency Management recommended residents check their roofs and shovel because of the weight of the snow.
On Wednesday, not only was U.S. Highway 160 closed from Three Springs to at least Farmington Hill, north Main Avenue was solid black ice as well, she said.
“Once cars stop at a light, they can’t get started again,” she said. “If the snow crews have time to get sand down, that will help, and roads will be safer.”
Eastbound U.S. Highway 160 at Farmington Hill reopened around 7:10 p.m., the Durango Fire Protection District announced on social media. At 8:15 p.m., law enforcement was clearing the final vehicle in the westbound lanes of Highway 160 to reopen them soon, said Fire Marshal Karola Hanks.
As the evening went on, Colorado Department of Transportation trucks needed to make multiple runs to restock sand.
People headed north out of town were out of luck for a couple of hours Wednesday evening, as U.S. Highway 550 between 38th Street and County Road 203 was closed to allow for plows to sand the road. Animas View Drive also was closed shortly thereafter after a city Trolley slid off the road, according to scanner reports. The roadway was described as “a skating rink.” The road had reopened by 8:20 p.m.
There were also reports of difficulties going up 15th Street to East Third Avenue and Florida Road. The front road to Fort Lewis College up East Eighth Avenue closed at 5 p.m. Wednesday.
Molas and Coal Bank passes on U.S. Highway 550 between Durango and Silverton reopened shortly before 1 p.m., and at 6:10 p.m., the Colorado Department of Transportation reopened Red Mountain Pass, which had been closed since Tuesday afternoon for avalanche mitigation. Chains, snow tires or four-wheel-drives were required for all vehicles on all three passes, with chains required on all commercial vehicles and vans with a capacity of 16 passengers or more.
The Colorado State Patrol reported tough driving conditions on Wolf Creek Pass, which was pounded Wednesday by the storm. The pass was open.
Indiana Reed, spokeswoman for La Plata Electric Association, was a little surprised there had not been significant power outages with such heavy, wet snow. The only outage that did occur – affecting 27 customers on County Road 229 – was caused after an SUV rolled over and seriously damaged a power pole.
“They said the new pole would be mounted by 8 p.m.,” she said at 7:50 p.m. “And it’s already done, even though they got stuck in the traffic on 160 like everyone else.”
Crashes on 491
According to Cortez police, the crashes on U.S. Highway 491 took place at mile marker 45, between County Roads AA and BB. Multiple fire and rescue services, including those from Pleasant View and Lewis-Arriola, responded.
During the afternoon storm, visibility was limited to about 20 feet, according to reports, and vehicles were sliding off the highway on the ice-covered highway.
“It’s multiple, multiple-vehicle accidents,” said Trooper Josh Lewis with the Colorado State Patrol about the closing of U.S. Highway 491. “I haven’t heard about any injuries yet, but it’s a matter of getting everyone out and moving, and given the conditions, it’s going slowly.”
Icy, snowy roads and blizzard conditions about 3:30 p.m. contributed to the accident, which involved seven semi-trailers trucks and 12 other vehicles along a one-mile stretch of the highway. Three people were transported to area hospitals with minor injuries. A Colorado State Patrol car was hit in the accident, but the trooper was not injured.
Law enforcement said the road would reopen between 9:30 and 10 p.m.
In the air
The San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office said no one was injured when a small jet crashed into a snowplow Wednesday afternoon at the Telluride Regional Airport.
The plane, carrying five passengers and two crew members, was arriving from El Paso, Texas, about 2 p.m. when the crash occurred.
The Sheriff’s Office said on its Facebook page that the pilot reportedly did not radio the airport base before landing.
Meanwhile, staff members at the Durango-La Plata County Airport were catching up Wednesday after cascading flight delays on Tuesday.
Many flights were delayed about 45 minutes for de-icing, and the airport had some flight cancellations in the evening because of poor visibility, said Tony Vicari, airport operations specialist. Most travelers affected by cancellations were rescheduled to fly out Wednesday. A few were rescheduled on flights departing from Albuquerque, he said.
On Wednesday, two flights were delayed. The 7:30 a.m. United Airlines flight to Denver was scheduled to leave shortly before 4 p.m. The crew got in too late Tuesday night to leave on time, Vicari said. An American flight to Dallas was delayed because of a fueling issue.
Some delays may be possible late Thursday and on Christmas because of the weather, he said.
“Our next round of snow coming in tomorrow afternoon and into Christmas Day – that should slow operations down,” he said.
But a full snow-removal staff will be at work to keep holiday travel moving, he said.
“We’re doing our best,” he said.
On the slopes
Skiers and snowboarders at resorts across Southwest Colorado were enjoying fresh powder Wednesday – with more expected.
Purgatory Resort has received 32 inches since Sunday, and the resort has a 55-inch base, according to its snow report. Nine of the resort’s 10 lifts and three of the five terrain parks are open.
Early snow and the resort’s 50th anniversary helped push reservations for the week before Christmas up 25 percent compared with last year, Kim Oyler, a spokeswoman for the resort, said last week.
Wolf Creek Ski Area reported 38 inches of new snow from the storm, and it has an 80-inch base. Wolf Creek has already received more than 200 inches of snow this season.
Telluride Ski Resort has received 11 inches in the last 24 hours, with a 51-inch base.
In a clarification, Colorado Department of Transportation trucks needed to restock sand multiple times throughout the night, asking other drivers to cover their areas for them until they returned.