GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Colorado Gov. Jared Polis says the state should be able to reopen a vital interstate highway corridor that was blocked by massive mud and debris slides in a wildfire burn scar area to limited traffic on Saturday.
Polis made the announcement after touring repair work along Interstate 70 in the Glenwood Canyon area on Wednesday. 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.
Polis said workers hope to open traffic on one lane in each direction by Saturday afternoon as repairs continue. State transportation workers have been removing thousands of tons of debris from the roadway, which connects Denver to the West Coast.
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, making conditions ripe 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.
“We are pushing to get this open as quickly as we can. But of course it has to be safe before we can do that,” Polis said after touring the area with Shoshana Lew, executive director of the state transportation department, and other transport and U.S. Forest Service officials, The Post-Independent reported. “At this point, we are confident it will be open Saturday afternoon with one lane each way.”
Polis said both lanes in each direction will open, likely in November, with initial repairs to the road surface, though motorists should prepare for short-term closures as repair work continues. “There’s really only about a quarter-mile patch where it would go down to one lane,” he said.
In one section, a 15-foot-deep hole pocks the eastbound lanes, and a barrier wall along the westbound lanes sustained significant damage. In several areas, crews had to remove 10 to 15 feet of debris (3 to 4.5 meters) in order to inspect damage underneath.
The Federal Highway Administration has authorized an initial $11.6 million in funding for the work. 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.
Climate change has made the region much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and is expected to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive, which could lead to more mudslides as rain falls on burn scars.