Grizzly Creek Fire: Closure of I-70 through Glenwood Canyon, Cottonwood Pass causing significant traffic delays
- Cottonwood Pass is a dirt road, narrow in spots. Commercial trucks shouldn’t be there.
- Independence Pass is paved, but very narrow and steep in spots. It’s illegal to take a vehicle more than 31 feet long up there.
Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon was closed for a second day Tuesday due to the Grizzly Creek wildfire on the canyon’s north side. The canyon closure, as usual, caused traffic snarls elsewhere.
Birch Barron, emergency management director for Eagle County, provided an update regarding the Grizzly Creek Fire during Tuesday’s meeting of the Eagle County Board of Commissioners.
“I think all of you saw how rapidly that fire expanded,” said Barron. “It blew hot and fast right up the canyon.”
Cottonwood Pass between Gypsum and Glenwood Springs was closed for a while Tuesday, then was only reopened to local passenger vehicles only.
Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek said officers from Eagle and Garfield counties Tuesday were stationed at the entrances to the pass. Those officers were stopping commercial vehicles and ordering them to turn around.
One large truck, hauling for Amazon, flipped on its side in the early-morning hours Tuesday. The truck was scheduled to be hauled off the pass Tuesday evening, but Trooper Jacob Best with the Colorado State Patrol wrote in an email just after 5 p.m. that the recovery of the tractor-trailer had been called off for safety reasons and the timeframe for when it will be recovered remains unknown.
For Eagle County residents, Barron said traffic and smoke are the major impacts of the Grizzly Creek fire.
As for the smoke, while the skies are clearer Tuesday morning than they were yesterday afternoon and evening, Barron urged everyone to remain cautious.
Smoke a health hazard
“If you can’t see five miles because of the smoke hazard … then it has harmful impacts to your health,” he noted. When the smoke is that thick, it is advisable to remain indoors with windows closed. However, that advice is diametrically opposed to the health recommendations associated with COVID-19, which say people are generally safer in open-air environments.
What’s more, smoke inhalation symptoms and COVID-19 symptoms can be similar, Barron said. If in doubt about whether sudden symptoms could be the result of the virus or the smoke, Barron urged people to err on the side of caution.
“The best way to keep yourself and your family healthy is to get tested for COVID-19 early,” he advised.”It’s a challenging situation. But we don’t get to pick and choose when fires happen and when disease pandemics happen,” Barron said.
Those on the roads faced hours of either detour driving or other delays.
Colorado Department of Transportation District 3 Communications Manager Elise Thatcher said trucks were also being turned around Monday on Independence Pass.
Cottonwood and Independence passes may be inappropriate for interstate detours, but motorists relying on navigation systems often head that way. Those systems don’t factor the limits of those roads.
But Independence and Cottonwood passes are the closest detours around the canyon.
There’s also little chance Cottonwood Pass will ever be improved to accommodate heavy trucks. The route was once examined as a possible route for I-70. That idea was rejected because transportation officials didn’t want heavy trucks driving over three passes of 10,000 feet or more between Denver and Grand Junction.
The Eagle County Commissioners in 2010 did a bit of work to see what it might cost to pave and improve the length of the pass. The cost estimate at the time was $66 million for a road with 12-foot lanes and six-foot shoulders. Eva Wilson, then the county engineer, told commissioners even that estimate was probably low.
Other detours involve hundreds of miles of driving to get to and from the interstate.
The northern route is even longer right now. The usual detour runs north from Wolcott to Steamboat Springs, then west to Craig, then south through Meeker to Rifle.
But portions of State Highway 13 are under construction this summer, and transportation officials have been working to keep commercial trucks off that road.
“We’re doing everything we possible can” to keep traffic off Highway 13, Thatcher said.
The alternative is heading further west from Steamboat Springs nearly to Rangely, then south to I-70 on State Highway 139.
The southern detour is longer than the northern one, through Grand Junction, Montrose, Gunnison and Poncha Springs on U.S. Highway 50.
As of Tuesday, it was unclear when I-70 would reopen through the canyon. There was no containment on the blaze, and Thatcher said transportation engineers needed to evaluate the structural integrity of two bridges in the area where the fire started. The fire might also have created rockfall dangers from burned vegetation.
“We don’t really know” when the canyon will reopen, Thatcher said. “We’ve got our fingers crossed.”