Recent wreck-related I-70 closures put a crimp in commutes

Traffic travels east and west on Interstate 70 on the east end of South Canyon during the early evening rush hour.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Ava Bowles said she left Rifle for an appointment at Canyon Creek at about 1:30 p.m. Friday, unaware of the major traffic backup that awaited her, caused by a serious-injury wreck near New Castle.

“There was no warning via signage that the highway was closed, so we spent four hours in the massive traffic jam,” she said in response to a reader query from the Glenwood Springs Post Independent about the impacts to motorists from a spate of recent wreck-related Interstate 70 closures.

Bowles said she felt her situation was “totally avoidable” had there been some on-highway messaging in addition to the Garfield County and Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) emergency alerts that went out.

Eastbound Interstate 70 ended up being closed for about eight hours after the 9 a.m. crash involving a large cement mixer truck and a pickup that sent three people to the hospital. The drivers of both vehicles had to be air-lifted from the scene after a lengthy and complicated extrication from the wreckage, and a crane was eventually used to pry the vehicles apart and remove them.

In the meantime, eastbound traffic was diverted onto adjacent U.S. 6 through New Castle to the Canyon Creek exit, causing long backups and delays as some motorists stopped to view the accident scene.

Elise Thatcher, regional communications manager for the Colorado Department of Transportation, said the agency understands the impacts to the traveling public caused by highway closures and detours, and works to make sure motorists are informed when they occur.

But in situations like the one Friday, as well as two other recent incidents in the Glenwood Springs area that caused lengthy I-70 closures, the primary focus was on coordinating the incident response and making sure motorists stayed safe.

“We do understand the major impacts these closures, even partial closures, have on residents and the people who work in the Roaring Fork Valley,” Thatcher said. “We work with the State Patrol and Garfield County to reopen those areas as soon as possible, but when we know it’s safe.”

The Friday incident was the third major wreck-related I-70 closure in less than a week’s time.

Each of them, including a semi truck hauling recycling materials that caught fire in Glenwood Canyon on May 19, and a semi that rolled onto its side on I-70 in front of the Glenwood Hot Springs Pool the afternoon of May 15, resulted in extended highway closures.

The truck fire in particular was an all-hands-on-deck response, given the location right next to the Grizzly Creek Rest Area where the massive Grizzly Creek Fire took off last summer, forcing a near two-week closure of I-70 through Glenwood Canyon.

In that instance, virtually everyone in the nearby Hanging Lake CDOT operations center was on the ground helping to put out the fire and keep it from spreading, Thatcher said.

Many of those workers were the same people who would normally be in charge of changing the electronic message boards to alert motorists to the highway closure that resulted, she said.

“We were very fortunate that they were able to respond so quickly and effectively,” Thatcher said. “That could have been a bad day.”

The semi-truck fire incident occurred around 11:56 a.m. May 19. The Glenwood Springs Fire Department responded, and I-70 was closed for more than four-and-a-half hours, resulting in traffic backups in and around Glenwood Springs.

Firefighters responded to find the cab of a tandem semi-truck full of recycled materials fully engulfed in flames, which were spreading to the cargo trailers, according to a GSFD news release at the time.

A scorched semi truck that was carrying recyclable materials sits along Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon after the initial blaze was extinguished on May 19, 2021.
Glenwood Springs Fire Department photo

CDOT responded with an engine and extinguished the fire within the cab of the truck, and Glenwood Springs firefighters were able to get the fire in the cargo area of the truck under control. An engine from Gypsum Fire also assisted with water supply and began containment of hazardous materials to prevent runoff into the Colorado River.

“Full extinguishment could not be achieved due to the threat of hazardous materials entering the waterway,” according to the release. “Therefore, the decision was made to escort the vehicle to the waste facility in the Carbondale area, where the load could be safely and effectively off-loaded and extinguished.”

From that point, the Carbondale and Rural Fire District resumed extinguishment efforts of the cargo at the waste facility.

No one was injured in that incident.

The May 15 semi truck rollover did result in serious injuries to the driver, Clifford Davis, Jr., 51, from Arizona, who also had to be air-lifted for medical treatment, according to Glenwood Springs Police Lt. Bill Kimminau.

That incident also resulted in a near two-hour closure of eastbound I-70, as well as a follow-up closure later that night to remove the wreckage.

Kimminau said wrecks, especially involving semis, have been frequent at that particular location in his 36 years with the Glenwood PD.

In general, he said he has noticed a recent increase in serious wrecks on I-70 between Glenwood Springs and Parachute.

“That’s just a bad stretch of highway,” he said of the portion of I-70 as it flattens and becomes straighter west of the mountain passes and canyons.

Often, wrecks on I-70 require a coordinated response between local police and fire agencies, CDOT, the State Patrol and other agencies, Thatcher said.

“We’re so lucky to have these local agencies that are able to be on scene so quickly and figure out the best way to keep people moving, or close the highway if it’s unsafe,” she said.

Another reader, Joanne Rock from Eagle, said she believes newcomers and truckers in particular need continuous reminders to be aware of the dangers of driving I-70 through the mountains.

“They should also triple the fines for speeding violations and if it is determined the cause of an accident was due to overdue servicing, especially on commercial and oversized vehicles,” Rock said.

She noted that other states, including her native New Jersey, require routine vehicle inspections paid for by higher vehicle registration fees as vehicles get older, rather than declining in proportion to value, as in Colorado.