Blown away: Wind storm topples trees, downs power lines in Steamboat Springs

Crews from Yampa Valley Electic Association work on a power line and pole that were damaged by falling trees in Tuesday's high winds. The storm caused power outages for thousands of residents and caused widespread property damage.
John F. Russell

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Gusting winds and sleeting snow in Steamboat Springs on Tuesday made for an interesting return from Labor Day weekend.

The first snow storm of the season toppled trees, destroyed several structures and shut down power for numerous neighborhoods in and around Steamboat. Rabbit Ears Pass closed for more than an hour due to safety concerns amid blowing snow and icy conditions that contributed to multiple accidents.

Wind speeds at the Steamboat Springs Airport reached a maximum of 55 mph around 9 a.m., according to data from the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. Local meteorologist Mike Weissbluth, who runs the forecasting website, heard of unconfirmed reports of gusts exceeding 100 mph on Steamboat Resort.

Responding to the deluge of storm-related emergencies required a coordinated effort from various city departments.

Steamboat’s public works crews were out beginning at 6 a.m. clearing debris from the streets and ensuring major routes remained navigable, according to a news release. 

“This is unlike anything we’ve seen,” Steamboat Public Works Director Jon Snyder said in the release. “As fast as we’re opening roadways, new trees are coming down from the ongoing winds and gusts.”

Steamboat Springs Parks and Recreation employees helped clear the trees. At one point, they were clearing one tree when another fell on their pickup truck.

“Luckily, no one was hurt, but the truck was damaged,” Snyder said.

The vast majority of trees fell on private property, which owners will be responsible for cleaning, according to the city.

Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue firefighters responded to numerous reports of downed power lines, which caused widespread electricity troubles. An outage temporarily disabled the traffic signal at Third Street and Lincoln Avenue, requiring Steamboat Springs Police Department officers to direct traffic through the wind gusts and cold temperatures.

Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs closed its campus Tuesday due to power outages.

The Yampa Valley Electric Association had approximately 3,400 outages across its service area in Moffat and Routt counties, according to Megan Moore-Kemp, the electricity company’s energy solutions manager. By 4:30 p.m., crews had restored power to most of its customers, she added.

Asked what caused the unusually high winds, meteorologist Weissbluth attributed the storm to a massive low-pressure system from the east. The system traveled over the Continental Divide, developing large waves of wind that broke over Steamboat, much like ocean waves breaking on the shore. 

Weissbluth said these are similar conditions that caused a massive wind storm in 1997, which toppled more than six million trees in the Routt National Forest, known as the Routt Divide Blowdown. Gusts in that storm reached an estimated 120 mph. 

“We could very well see some blowdowns similar to that event in ’97,” Weissbluth said of Tuesday’s storm.

Numerous trees fell around his house near Steamboat Resort, but fortunately, his home remained unscathed. Winds damaged a wood shed near his house.

“Luckily, it didn’t take the deck with it,” Weissbluth said.

Snowfall ranged from 1 to 4 inches in and around Steamboat on Tuesday, according to Megan Stackhouse, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Most of the snow melted later in the day. The meteorologist predicted another 2 to 4 inches of snow by Wednesday. 

In a report, the National Weather Service warned of gusty winds through Wednesday in the wake of a strong cold front moving through the area. The winds could result in more power outages and tree damage. Steamboat also could see record-cold temperatures for this time of year, with lows dipping to the low to mid-20s at night and in the early morning until Thursday.

Temperatures will gradually rise through the end of the week, Stackhouse said, with highs in the 70s for the weekend. Winds should calm after Wednesday.

To report a downed tree on a road within city limits, call the streets division at 970-879-1807. To report trees on city trails, call parks and recreation at 970-879-4300. 

To report a downed power line, call 911 for Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue or the responsible power company. People should never approach or move a downed power line.

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.

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