Colorado freeway closed from mudslides, opens limited lanes

DENVER (AP) — The reopening of a vital Colorado interstate highway corridor blocked for weeks by mud and debris slides in a wildfire burn scar is set for Saturday, state transportation officials said.

Cleanup operations have been focused on sweeping, removing thousands of tons of debris and re-paving sections of Interstate Highway 70 in preparation for the reopening, according to the state Department of Transportation. On Saturday, the highway will have a 1-mile stretch with one lane of traffic in each direction.

There is no set time yet, but Shoshana Lew, executive director at Colorado’s Department of Transportation said Friday they expect the roadway to open “no later than tomorrow afternoon.”

Officials said the mudslide destruction in the canyon area was historic and they are monitoring heavy rains for further damaging impacts on the roadway. Lew also cautioned drivers on the major highway, which connects Denver to the West Coast, to drive with reduced speeds and extra care.

“We’re not out of the clear. We have to get very good cooperation from Mother Nature and make sure she is not establishing more events that place material down on the viaduct,” said Keith Stefanik, deputy incident commander for the state’s transportation department.

However, Stefanik said that officials completed several inspections which found some of the concerning and damaged sections of the roadway are “structurally sound” and ready to go for Saturday.

On Wednesday, Gov. Jared Polis said both lanes in each direction of the highway will open most likely in November.

Stefanik said the department is looking to hire an emergency contractor by next Friday and have them start construction and repairs on Aug. 23 in order to get the two-lane traffic opened by the department’s Thanksgiving goal.

The interstate, which winds through the narrow, 18-mile-long (29-kilometer-long) canyon, has been closed since July 29, when a series of mud and debris slides triggered by heavy rain buried parts of the highway.

It marked the latest in a string of closures over the past two years for an area that serves as a key transportation corridor between the Rocky Mountains and the West Coast. Each forced long detours for semitrailers that deliver fuel and food, and inflicted economic pain on businesses that cater to tourists in the popular summer destination of Glenwood Springs.

Mudslides have become more frequent and intense since the Grizzly Creek Fire scorched about 50 square miles (130 square kilometers) in the canyon last summer, worsening conditions for debris flows in burn-scarred terrain. Scientists have long warned mudslides can follow wildfires made worse by climate change. Such slides have caused deaths and destruction in recent years in California and other parts of the U.S. West.

The July 29 mudslides stranded more than 100 people in their vehicles overnight, capping several weeks of perilous conditions in the scenic canyon carved by the Colorado River. The 46-mile-long (74-kilometer-long) closure has forced commercial and personal vehicle traffic to make hours-long detours, and state transport officials even recommended long-haul commercial trucks take Interstate 80 to the north in Wyoming as an alternate route.

One section of the east-bound lane sustained a 15-foot-deep hole and a barrier wall along the westbound lanes was also significantly damage. In several areas, crews removed 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.5 meters) of debris in order to inspect the roadway’s damage underneath.

The Federal Highway Administration has authorized an initial $11.6 million in repair funding. Polis has requested $116 million in emergency federal aid.

Scientists say special calculations are needed to determine how much global warming is to blame, if at all, for a single extreme weather event such as the debris flows. But a historic drought and recent heat waves tied to climate change have, no doubt, made wildfires harder to fight in the American West.

A recent study led by U.S. Geological Survey researchers mapped landslide vulnerability in Southern California and found the area can now expect small, post-wildfire landslides almost every year, and major events roughly every 10 years. It said the state faces increased risks of both wildfires and landslides caused by climate change-induced shifts in its wet and dry seasons.

One particularly devastating post-fire slide occurred in Southern California in 2018, when a river of mud, trees and boulders slammed into the town of Montecito. More than 20 people died, and hundreds of homes were destroyed.

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