Glenwood Canyon to re-open in ‘coming days, not weeks’; concerns arise for future issues

Peter Baumann
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
A helicopter takes off Thursday morning from I-70 among the scorched earth around the highway from the Grizzly Creek Fire outside of Glenwood Springs.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

“Days, not weeks” is the current timeline for reopening Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon.

A roughly 24-mile stretch of the interstate has been closed for more than a week due to the Grizzly Creek Fire — the longest I-70 closure in the history of Colorado.

But progress is being made on the crucial steps necessary for traffic to once again flow through Glenwood Canyon.

“We’re looking at days, not weeks, for the end of the closure,” Shoshana Lew, Colorado Department of Transportation’s executive director, said on a teleconference with reporters. “The end is in sight.”

One positive development was the reopening of CDOT’s Hanging Lake Tunnel Operations Center on Wednesday.

“The biggest (step) for me was getting our staff back to the Hanging Lake Tunnel’s operation center,” said Michael Goolsby, CDOT’s northwest region transportation director. “There are some federal things that go along with that as far as having that staff demand and being able to run some of the safety systems that are in the tunnel so that we can safely transport traffic through it.”

Challenges remain

Yet challenges related to ongoing firefighting efforts and the potential for rock fall and debris slides remain.

Goolsby said that the interstate is providing an important staging area for firefighters. Once it’s safe to do so, those staging areas will be moved from the I-70 roadway. Ongoing air attack efforts on the Grizzly Creek Fire would also need to wind down before the interstate could reopen.

Goolsby said all 40 bridges and viaducts on I-70 through Glenwood Canyon would require inspection to ensure their safety. The good news, he said, is inspections have already begun — and show minimal damage to some of the concrete bridges.

“Our bridge inspection team has been up there since late last week just a couple days after the fire hit and has been inspecting these bridges to see what kind of damage there was,” he said. “I think the early indications are the temperatures on the concrete bridges were not so high that they could compromise the structural integrity, so that’s very positive news.”

Weather concerns after the fire

Travel risks through Glenwood Canyon won’t stop once the fire is out. The potential for debris fall, rockslides, avalanches and more will be significantly higher, and it will require hard work by CDOT, the Forest Service and other agencies to minimize that risk as much as possible.

“There’s a couple areas out there right now that if they take a quarter-inch an hour of rainfall and it’s concentrated in those areas, well, we will have debris flow,” Goolsby said. “That’s not a lot of water, so that tells you how some areas out there are severely damaged from a vegetation and ground standpoint.”

Loose rock is also a concern. Lew said conditions can change rapidly and safety remains the most important part to reopening the road. They have seen rockfall “daily, if not hourly,” Goolsby added.

Canyon construction still on track

When the fire struck, it was toward the scheduled end of a $15.7 million resurfacing and improvement project for I-70 through Glenwood Canyon. While the fire damaged some of the new road surface, Goolsby said the project was ahead of schedule and could still be on track for an October finish.

“Fortunately, the engineering project that was going on the westbound portion of the Canyon was actually a little bit ahead of schedule,” he said. “ … That’s one of the things that we’re looking at, is how fast we can get the contractor back in there to do some of that work in conjunction with Xcel (Energy) doing some of their power line work. I’m very hopeful the project itself will wrap up in about the same timeframe.”

While he didn’t have an exact number, Goolsby said upward of 40 electrical poles had been burned or damaged from the Grizzly Creek Fire and would need to be repaired before the road could reopen.


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