Wet, heavy snow leads to car crashes, road closures and power outages across the Yampa Valley

5,200 homes impacted by power outages; More snow on the way

Crews work to replace a downed powerline pole near the Riverside Plaza Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022. At one point, around 1,100 people in Routt County were without power as a winter storm moved through the area.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Heavy snow brought to the Yampa Valley by a strong atmospheric river led a myriad of vehicle crashes, road closures and power outages in and around Steamboat Springs over the past two days.

The effects were almost immediately noticed when snow started falling Tuesday evening, Dec. 27, with traffic slowdowns on U.S. Highway 40 through Steamboat Springs, especially on the east side of the city near the base of Steamboat Resort.

Those impacts continued Wednesday, as about 5,200 of Yampa Valley Electric Association’s customers lost power at some point due to the storm. YVEA mobilized dozens of employees to restore power through the day. As of 6 p.m., just over 50 of them were still in the dark — outages that the co-op warned could last overnight.

Snow is expected to continue accumulating as the storm winds down Thursday, Dec. 29. After a break Thursday night, local meteorologist Mike Weissbluth said, another system is headed toward the Yampa Valley that could bring as much as three feet of snow to Steamboat Resort by Tuesday, Jan. 3.

“The Friday, (Dec. 30) storm is sort of a leading wave ahead of our next major storm for Monday, (Jan. 2,)” said Weissbluth, who runs the forecasting website “If it happens the way it’s forecasted, we’re going to get pretty heavy snow late Friday night and all day Saturday, (Dec. 31). … Monday looks like very significant accumulations again.”

In a 90-minute period after snow started falling Tuesday, Steamboat Springs and Routt County law enforcement responded to at least eight vehicle crashes, including one on Routt County Road 14 that closed the road and hampered travel toward Stagecoach.

Lt. Ryan Adrian with the Routt County Sheriff’s Office said the wreck near mile marker 10 involved three vehicles, had minor injuries among those involved and resulted in a Steamboat Springs fire truck that responded to the scene getting stuck as well.

Rei Kirchner shoves his car out of the snow in the Steamboat II neighborhood Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

“(The roads were) so nasty and two of the vehicles were still blocking the northbound lane of 14,” Adrian said. “When Steamboat fire was trying to leave after checking on the patients, it was so slick that the fire truck slid into the ditch and was partially blocking the southbound lane, so we just ended up shutting it all down.”

In Steamboat, three city transit buses got stuck in slick conditions over the course of the evening with one sliding off the road near Walton Creek Road and Columbine Drive and requiring a tow truck to pull the bus out.

Steamboat Springs Transit Manager Jonathan Flint said drivers are trained to get buses as far off the road as possible when they get stuck, which is what the driver did along Walton Creek Road.

Typically, adding more traction to the road with scoria can dislodge buses, Flint said, and that solution worked for the other two that got stuck near Mt. Werner Road and Steamboat Boulevard.

“Those buses are really pretty good in the snow,” Flint said. “The temperature was kind of that perfect temperature to turn it in to that real slick, sort of concrete thick snow, and then it was rush hour.”

A county grader plows the streets in the Riverside neighborhood Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022 after a winter storm moved through the area Tuesday night into Wednesday.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

When buses do get stuck, it is generally due to physics, Flint said. When a bus stops moving, it needs more force to go forward. When the bus is on a slick incline, that force can be hard to come by. Vehicle crashes that don’t involve buses can impact service as well, as Flint said they often have to reroute some of their lines.

Steamboat Springs Police Commander Mark Beckett said that while his officers have been responding to a lot of weather related calls, it isn’t out of the ordinary for December in Ski Town, USA. He asked those venturing out on the roads to “be smart.”

“If there is a lot of snow on the ground and the city plows haven’t gone through, understand that these vehicles — even four-wheel-drive vehicles — aren’t going to do well when there is eight inches of snow or even six inches of snow on the roads,” Beckett said.

Flint noticed that a lot of vehicles he saw stuck because of this storm have been from out of state or rentals, signaling their drivers may be less familiar with driving in heavy snow. He said the city bus drivers are trained for these conditions and suggested that visitors should opt to use the buses rather than getting behind the wheel themselves.

Many residents likely opted to stay home altogether Wednesday, though some were left without power. YVEA spokesperson Carly Davidson said outages affected 5,200 customers between 10:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon.

Crews spent all day working to repair downed lines in various parts of Routt County, including one fix along U.S. 40 on Steamboat’s west side that forced crews to close the road for a short period Wednesday afternoon. A message sent to members asked those who remained without power to prepare for it to stay off through the night.

As of 6:20 p.m. Wednesday, 56 customers were still without power, with all but six of those being in the Steamboat Springs service area. Routt County Emergency Management coordinated to open the Steamboat Springs Community Center as a warming center for those without power. Crews from the White River Electric Association in Meeker were also headed to Steamboat late Wednesday to help local crews restore power.  

This graphic from the National Weather Service explains the science behind the atmospheric river that brought wet, heavy snow to the Yampa Valley on Wednesday, Dec. 28.
National Weather Service/Courtesy

Part of the reason this storm hindered power operations so much was because it was not Steamboat’s typical, fluffy snow that lures skiers to the slopes. Instead, snow fell amid warmer temperatures through an atmosphere with two to three times more moisture that what is typical for the Yampa Valley.

This is because of a weather pattern called an atmospheric river, which is a strong channel of moisture coming up from the tropics. Because that river is coming to Steamboat from the southwest, it is also bringing warmer temperatures and forming heavier, wet snow.

“The snowflakes, they are not the delicate, airy dendrites,” Weissbluth said. “They’re collecting water as they fall through the clouds. … Not only do the ice crystals contain more water, but also when it falls, it packs together more closely.”

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.