CDOT officials brace for debris danger from burn scars in Glenwood Canyon
Rest areas and bike path will reopen, but will be subject to preemptive closures
In the aftermath of the Grizzly Creek Fire, U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Department of Transportation officials warned that more problems would materialize in the months ahead when spring thaw brought increased debris flow danger for Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon.
That time has arrived and crews are already at work to address the issue.
According to Elise Thatcher, CDOT Northwest Colorado communications manager, there are a variety of projects currently underway in Glenwood Canyon including rockfall mitigation and damage repair.
Thatcher said construction of new rockfall fencing, along with repair of existing fences, began immediately after the fire and continues this spring. Additionally, CDOT is at work on projects not related to rockfall concerns including replacement of damaged electrical conduits and repair of concrete coating on bridges. The concrete work does not involve structural repair, Thatcher said.
“It remains safe to drive in these areas. It’s not a concern that the concrete is going to collapse,” she noted.
Some of the larger rockfall mitigation project may result in what Thatcher calls “brief” highway closures beginning this month. Helicopter or crane crews may be called in, Thatcher explained, which will require CDOT to clear out traffic in the construction areas. However, she said, those closures would be for relatively short periods of time — one to two hours. If closures are required, Thatcher said CDOT will alert the local residents and the traveling public about the plan.
Of course, there is still the potential for unplanned closures because of unstable soils left behind from the fire.
“We are expecting there will be some debris flow in the fire area,” said David Boyd, White River National Forest public affairs officer. “There is an increased change of rockfall and hazards.”
Rockfall closures of I-70 through the canyon happen periodically when boulders tumble down the steep canyon hillsides and onto I-70, especially during spring thaw or during big rainstorms. But after last year’s 32,631-acre fire, there are new safety protocols for the roadway.
“People should know, and they should be aware of, potential for different types of closures this year,” Thatcher said. Specifically, CDOT may decide to close the canyon bike path or rest areas if conditions warrant. CDOT reopened the Grizzly Creek and Shoshone rest areas this week and plans to reopen the bike path this spring, but those areas present evacuation challenges in the event of an emergency. For example, in many cases, people in those areas are separated from their vehicles and end up marooned after being evacuated.
“Evacuating rest areas and the bike path takes more time than closing the highway,” Thatcher continued. But evacuation of the path and rest areas can be done on in preemptive fashion, she added.
“We would anticipate closing those areas before a canyon closure and we are more likely to close the rest areas and bike path a day before anticipated weather,” Thatcher said.
CDOT will closely monitor weather forecasts for the area, in anticipation of potentially hazardous conditions, Thatcher said.
Hot and fast
The Grizzly Creek Fire burned hot and fast, which is one of the reasons why it spread so quickly and closed I-70 for two weeks. But now, months after it erupted, the fire’s nature actually has an upside.
According to Boyd, a USFS Burned Area Emergency Response team analysis of the Grizzly Creek burn scar concluded the fire didn’t severely scorch soils.
“There will be a good opportunity for recovery. There are still roots and microrganisms in place,” Boyd said.
Boyd said the USFS largely plans to allow natural regeneration of the area, but some remedial efforts have already started and that work will continue this year.
“We will have personnel up there monitoring and working in the burned areas as soon as they can get there,” Boyd said.
Thatcher added that CDOT is also working on revegetation, laying down mulch and reseeding within the I-70 right of way through the canyon.
“In an event like last summer, it is hard to say there is a silver lining. It was a very challenging situation,” Thatcher said. But the Grizzly Creek Fire did give CDOT and other agencies and jurisdictions an opportunity to learn what happens when an emergency closes I-70 through the canyon for an extended period of time.
“Fortunately, this spring we have more time to prepare,” Thatcher said. “We are in the process of working with stakeholders to put the finishing touches on our safety closure protocol. We really want to make sure we have input and are on the same page with our stakeholders.”
The Grizzly Creek Fire vividly demonstrated that motorists will attempt to bypass the area via inadvisable routes including Cottonwood Pass and Crooked Creek Pass. In the event of an extended closure, CDOT will work with local jurisdictions to discourage motorists from attempting those detours.
Another problem that materialized with the Grizzly Creek Fire closure was the impact of backed up traffic on communities located at the eastern and western sides of the canyon. “We want to make sure we are immediately turning people around if there is closure so they aren’t just sitting in Glenwood Springs for six hours, wondering what to do,” Thatcher said.
She noted that of the biggest changes moving forward is the emergency detour for Glenwood Canyon I-70 traffic. The new route — traveling east to west — is north on Colorado Highway 9 at Silverthorne, west on U.S. Highway 40 to Craig and south on Colorado Highway 13 to Rifle to reconnect with I-70.
“Obviously, this is not a short detour. If there were shorter options that would be preferable, but there are not. These are the Rocky Mountains,” Thatcher said. “We will be strongly recommending the northern detour route this year.”
After CDOT finalizes its complete closure plan, Thatcher said the agency will reach out to local residents to share the details in community forums.
“We really want people to know what to expect and to be prepared,” she said.