Last motorists caught in Glenwood Canyon after mudslides evacuated from Bair Ranch
More than 100 people were trapped after slides hit interstate Thursday night
UPDATE – 6:30 p.m. Saturday — A safety closure is expected to continue through the weekend for Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon. According to a Saturday evening update posted to the Colorado Department of Transportation Facebook page, crews removed more than 135 truck loads of mud and debris Saturday.
“There are severe impacts in the canyon due to mudslides and debris flow; there is also heavy rain in the forecast through the weekend. Motorists should avoid the area and travel on the northern alternate route,” CDOT advised.
CDOT confirmed Friday night that all of the more than 100 people caught in Glenwood Canyon after major debris flows hit Interstate 70 on Thursday night have been evacuated.
“As of 5 p.m., we confirmed that all motorists and all of the remaining vehicles at Bair Ranch have been removed,” said Colorado Department of Transportation Region 3 Communications Manager Elise Thatcher.
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CDOT Region 3 Director Mike Goolsby said during a news conference held Friday afternoon that highway department officials were in the process of punching a hole through the debris to get through to the stranded motorists, which included 65 to 75 people. Officials said there were no injuries or deaths.
Members of the Colorado Highway Patrol were with the stranded motorists at Bair Ranch.
“Today, we worked with CDOT and our other local partners to assist those stranded motorists who were impacted by the debris flows,” Colorado State Patrolman Dave Rollins said during the news conference. “We are also deploying additional staffing on the alternate routes that motorists are using to travel around the closure.”
Transportation department officials worked to evacuate everyone in the Bair Ranch area prior to further storms hitting the area Friday night.
At 4:41 p.m. Thursday, CDOT opted to close Interstate 70 in both directions between west Rifle and Dotsero due to a flash flood warning. Less than two hours later, however, the department reopened the interstate, only to close it again around 9 p.m due to another flash flood warning.
In the process, several mudslides occurred after a storm cell quickly moved over the area and hit the Grizzly Creek burn scar, which has been a common occurrence in Glenwood Canyon over the past six weeks.
“We actually kept (I-70) closed about 45 minutes past the end of the warning last night,” Goolsby said Friday. “We deemed it safe based on the radar and based on what information we had. The good thing is, meteorologists work on probabilities and they make the best guesses that they can make. And, unfortunately, this snuck up on all of us.”
The bigger flows of rock, mud and trees that occurred Thursday night ranged from 20 to 150 feet wide and 10 to 12 feet deep.
“One of the ones that ran over both the eastbound and westbound portions of the interstate had such force that it broke its section of the parapet wall off of the westbound (lane),” Goolsby said. “A majority of that debris ended up in the river farther down from the previous debris flow that we had.”
The flows left a total of 108 motorists and their passengers stranded in the canyon. Of which, 29 sought refuge in the Hanging Lake Tunnels area around 9 p.m. Thursday. Those stranded in the tunnel were escorted out of the tunnel Friday morning, where they eventually sought shelter at the Glenwood Springs Community Center, according to the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office.
For motorists who weren’t initially evacuated, they sought refuge at Bair Ranch.
“Somebody got in one of our loaders from Bair Ranch and proceeded down the interstate. Unfortunately, the loader that they got into was actually one that was waiting to get repaired,” Goolsby said. “They used it until it ran out on hydraulic fluid. The nice thing about it is the individual that was operating it was kind enough not to ruin it and turned it off when he realized that the check engine light came on.”
There were initially 29 to 35 vehicles stranded in Glenwood Canyon.
“We’ve been able to punch a hole through most of the debris fields, and that has allowed us access with our equipment,” Goolsby said. “That has afforded us the opportunity to get all of the vehicles out except for three, and those three vehicles were either trapped in the mud flow or they were abandoned.”
The highway department has also deployed its resources from many of its regions around Colorado to assist with mitigation efforts at Glenwood Canyon.
CDOT Executive Director Shoshana Lew said the closure will likely last throughout the weekend.
“The extended safety closure is necessary due to significant cleanup required after Thursday’s mudslides and debris flows as well as continued heavy rain in the forecast compounding the events we’ve seen over the past few weeks,” she said during the news conference. “CDOT reminds travelers that weather and safety conditions can shift precipitously in a matter of moments in this area, and weather forecasts suggest rain and significant mudslide risk throughout the weekend.”
The transportation department is recommending alternative routes for Interstate 70 through traffic via U.S. 40 to the north through Steamboat Springs and Craig, using connecting routes of Colorado Highways 13, 131 and 9.
CDOT Director of Maintenance and Operations John Lorme said, however, that motorists coming in from bordering states should completely circumvent Interstate 70 by using alternative major roadways.
“So, as commercial motor vehicles and cross-country traffic approaches Colorado from Kansas, they’re being instructed and guided to take I-25 north and basically take (Interstate 80) to the west and then keep going that way,” he said. “And same thing with if they’re coming in from Utah.”
CDOT is warning motorists to be aware of all threats caused by inclement weather and to plan ahead before traveling.
“Especially during this active monsoon season,” Lew said.
For further updates on Interstate 70 closures and weather forecasts, visit cotrip.org
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or email@example.com