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Blue River in Silverthorne closed due to high water

The Blue River flows under the 6th Street bridge in Silverthorne on Monday, June 1. The Summit County Sheriff’s Office and town of Silverthorne have temporarily closed the Blue River from the base of the Dillon Dam to the Sixth Street Bridge in Silverthorne due to high water.
Jason Connolly / jconnolly@summitdaily.com
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The Summit County Sheriff’s Office and town of Silverthorne have temporarily closed the Blue River from the base of the Dillon Dam to the Sixth Street Bridge in Silverthorne, according to a press release. The closure is due to high water caused by snow runoff being released from the dam.

Denver Water notified the town and Sheriff’s Office that water in the Upper Blue north of the Dillon Dam had reached 1,000 cubic feet per second on Monday, June 1. Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons and Silverthorne Police Chief John Minor agreed there was a risk of serious injury or even death presented by the high water.

The closure will remain in place until water levels are low enough that recreational boaters can safely pass under the Sixth Street Bridge.

The Sheriff’s Office also reminded residents to take precautions when venturing near the river in the coming weeks as the spring runoff peaks. As of June 1, the Blue River was running at 1,000 cfs below Dillon Reservoir. Other flows into Lake Dillon include the Blue River flowing from Breckenridge at 420 cfs, Tenmile Creek flowing at 643 cfs below its confluence with North Tenmile Creek and Straight Creek flowing at 71 cfs.

Guidelines for safety around high water

The Sheriff’s Office said it strongly discourages people from any recreational activities in the water without proper training, experience and equipment. The agency recommends the following guidelines to stay safe around high water:

  • If flooding occurs, get to higher ground immediately.
  • Stay away from flood-prone areas, including dips, low spots, valleys, ditches, washes, etc.
  • Avoid flooded areas and those with fast-moving water.
  • Do not attempt to cross a flowing stream. Six inches of moving water is all it takes to sweep a person off his or her feet.
  • Don’t allow children or pets to play near high water, storm drains, culverts or ditches.
  • Flooded roads could have significant damage hidden by floodwaters. Never drive through floodwaters or on flooded roads. If your vehicle stalls, leave it immediately and seek higher ground. It only takes 2 feet of water to wash away most automobiles.
  • Do not camp or park your vehicle along streams and washes, particularly when water levels are high or fluctuating.
  • When recreating in or around the water, use the proper size and type of personal floatation device.
  • Anglers should wear wading belts to prevent water from entering waders during a fall.
  • Be especially cautious at night, when it is harder to recognize flood dangers.
  • Monitor NOAA Weather Radio or your local media for vital weather-related information.
  • Local and state officials are constantly monitoring flows in waterways throughout Summit County and are prepared to respond to any flooding.

Summit County officials urge residents to prepare for wildfire season

DILLON — It doesn’t take much to start a wildfire.

Lightning striking a tree in the forest, or a stray ember from an unwatched campfire can quickly grow into an astonishingly destructive blaze, threatening everything in its path. And while the county’s fire departments are already gearing up for that possibility after a small fire broke out near Silverthorne last week, officials are also asking community members to do what they can to help mitigate the danger and prepare for the worst-case scenario.

“The season is on us at this point, whether you’re ready for it or not,” said Steve Lipsher, a spokesperson for Summit Fire & EMS. “We can’t predict where a fire is going to start or how far away from developed areas it will start. Those two variables alone make it imperative that residents are ready to go now.

“A fire could start this afternoon. It could start 200 yards away from your home. At that point, you don’t have the luxury of time to start putting things together to be prepared.”

And while the U.S. Forest Service and others seek out mitigation work in surrounding forests and wooded areas, there’s plenty that residents can do to help protect their own properties and families. Perhaps most vitally, community members should be conducting mitigation work and creating defensible spaces around their homes.

Homeowners should be sure to remove any potential hazards near their homes, including things like bushes and overhanging tree branches near the house, replacing combustible decorative features like mulch with rocks, and creating distance between vegetation in the yard to break up any continuous fuel sources.

Additionally, homeowners should try to use fire-wise plants and trees on their properties and take care to remove built-up pine needles and leaves in their yards and gutters that could carry flames. Owners also should take the time to make sure any other potential hazards are safely stored, keeping firewood away from the house, putting away any flammable furniture after use and more.

Property owners also should double check to make sure any vents leading inside their homes have proper screens to prevent stray embers from entering.

Defensible Space Consultations

“That self-mitigation is an extremely important aspect to fire prevention,” said Chief Jim Keating of the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District. “It’s the one thing a property owner can do to help themselves, us and the overall process. There are a lot of mitigation efforts underway, but those are in the forest. If we have any kind of fire in a residential area, the structures are our big concern. So whatever the property owner can do themselves is an absolutely huge asset to our work.”

Red, White & Blue and Summit Fire & EMS both offer free wildfire preparation and defensible space consultations, wherein a fire official will come to the residence and provide insights on how homeowners can better mitigate the potential for a fire on their property.

But as some of the county’s residents have experienced over recent years, sometimes fires do threaten residential areas, and community members should be prepared for the possibility that they’ll be asked to evacuate in a hurry.

Officials are encouraging residents to prepare evacuation kits in the event they are forced to leave their homes, including at least three days worth of food and water, medications, a change of clothes, toiletries, a first-aid kit, cellphone charger, emergency tools and batteries, extra cash or a credit card, and any special items for infants or anyone else in the household needing extra care. Pet owners also should make sure they have food, a pet carrier and anything else they might need.

Additionally, residents should keep copies of essential documents in their kits — bank account numbers, contracts, family records, insurance polices and more — and should include any important phone numbers for individuals they might need to contact after an evacuation.

Keating said planning ahead could go a long way, especially as officials work through the best way to shelter individuals in the event of an evacuation while maintaining social distancing.

“If a fire does occur in your area, you need to have a plan, and you need to know where you’re going,” Keating said. “Residents shouldn’t necessarily rely on public officials. Have your own plan, particularly this year where it would be more difficult if we do have an evacuation situation because of the COVID issue. If you’ve got friends somewhere in a neighboring area, talk to them and be sure you have your to-go kit.”

Finally, residents should make sure that they’re able to get the information they need in an emergency. Officials recommend that residents sign up for emergency alerts through Summit County Alert, and familiarize themselves with helpful online resources for distributing information like the county’s emergency blog and social media pages for local emergency services.

This year Red, White & Blue and Summit Fire also launched new Community Connect portals, which allow residents to share vital information that emergency workers can access in the event of an emergency, such as emergency contacts, pre-set gathering locations, special mobility needs, pets in the home and more.

Red, White & Blue is planning on hosting virtual “Are You Ready?” workshops where community members can learn more about how to protect themselves and their property.

“We’ve seen how quickly the fire danger can move from low to high in the matter of a day or two,” Keating said. “There’s still snow on the ground, and we had moisture from last weekend. But by the end of the week, that could turn around, and even a small fire in the wrong place could result in disaster.”

And simply by virtue of living in Summit County, officials say everyone has a duty to engage in best practices around wildfire season.

“I think being educated about the threat of wildfires is a critical part of being a conscientious resident in our community,” Lipsher said. “We count on our residents to be responsible about fires and sources of heat. It’s just part of living up here.”

Summit Fire douses wildfire north of Silverthorne

SILVERTHORNE — Wildfire season has arrived.

Crews with Summit Fire & EMS responded to a small wildfire off Elk Run Road north of Silverthorne on Tuesday afternoon. While the blaze was quickly doused, officials say it’s a stern reminder that fires can pop up unpredictably and that residents need to be ready.

“We are in wildfire season now,” said Steve Lipsher, a spokesperson for Summit Fire & EMS. “Pretty much anywhere you can live in Summit County, you’re in the wildland urban interface. As a result, everyone should be prepared today for the possibility that a wildfire could threaten you or your home. If you haven’t, it is time to put together your plans.”

Summit Fire received the call at about noon and sent a hefty response to deal with the fire. Lipsher said a worker was cutting culvert piping with an oxy-acetylene torch when a spark landed in a nearby grass and sage field and started the blaze.

Lipsher said the fire grew to just over a half-acre in size and was traveling uphill with the help of heavy winds toward residential properties a quarter mile away. Though, firefighters arrived in time to stop it from reaching any structures. No property damage or injuries were reported.

In total, four fire engines — two regular engines and two wildland engines — arrived on scene along with a water tender truck and about 20 firefighters.

“We have the attitude that we’re going to throw the kitchen sink at these right now,” Lipsher said. “We don’t want a major wildfire — period — but even more so in the era of COVID-19 because of the difficulties of managing potentially hundreds of firefighters from around the nation working shoulder to shoulder.”

The crews were able to control the fire within about 45 minutes of arriving and spent the next couple of hours performing “mop-up” work, turning over smoldering materials and dousing them with water and dirt.

The blaze represents the area’s first notable fire of 2020, and Lipsher said he hopes it will nudge residents to begin planning for the possibility of bigger fires as conditions worsen. He advised that residents take some time to prepare an evacuation kit, make sure they have sufficient insurance, back up vital documents and other necessary precautions.

On Tuesday afternoon, officials upgraded the county’s fire danger level from low to moderate, due to recent warm weather and high winds.

 “There was no damage to homes or anything like that on this one,” Lipsher said. “By the end of the summer, it will be all nice and green up there. But it was a scary moment and a good early season wakeup call for everyone that our vegetation is dry enough that on a windy, dusty day it doesn’t take much to start a fire.”

Frisco offers sandbags, pushes flood preparedness ahead of runoff season

Runoff season has arrived, and Frisco is asking residents to take precautions to prepare for potential flood incidents in town.

With snowpack sitting slightly above average, county officials aren’t expecting a heavy runoff season or elevated risks of flooding. Though, they’re still urging public works departments around the county, along with residents and homeowners, to prepare for the possibility.

In Frisco, the public works department is making standard preparations for the snowmelt, including monitoring water levels in the Tenmile Creek and evaluating flood threats, removing debris that might impact water flow and making sandbags available to residents.

Frisco residents can pick up sandbags from the Frisco Public Works shop, 102 School Road, during regular business hours Mondays through Fridays. The first 100 sandbags per lot (not per address) are available free of charge. After that, bags will cost $0.25 a piece.

Residents will be asked to fill their own bags using sand piles at the North Sixth Avenue cul-de-sac north of Galena Street and at the intersection of Madison Avenue and Sunset Drive. Once residents are finished with the bags, they should be dumped back into the same piles. Bags should then be repurposed or disposed of and not returned to the public works department.

Individuals coming to pick up bags are asked to call ahead at 970-668-0836 and to practice physical distancing when filling up bags. Residents also can contact the public works department to report creek obstruction issues.

Frisco has flood insurance rate maps available for review. For help determining whether your property is in a Special Flood Hazard Area, residents can contact Assistant Community Development Director Bill Gibson at 970-668-5276 or at billg@townoffrisco.com.

As weather warms, wet slide on Buffalo Mountain forewarns avalanche danger

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with the latest forecast from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

DILLON — A naturally occurring wet slab avalanche on Buffalo Mountain early this week hinted at the lurking danger in Summit County’s snowpack as weather warms.

On Monday, Paul Torcoletti submitted an observation of the wet-slab slide with a southeast aspect in the area of Buffalo Mountain’s iconic main cirque.

With no tracks in the area, Torcoletti submitted the avalanche with a relative-size scale classification of R2 and a destructive-size score of D2.5. Each scale goes from 1-5, with 5 being the largest. He submitted the observation as an unknown trigger, though it appeared to be naturally triggered.

Summit County Rescue Group spokesman Charles Pitman agreed with that assessment as the group had yet to receive a call or page about any incidents.

That said, Pitman cautioned that even if the trigger was natural, it’s a sign the snowpack is suspect with warming weather — wisdom to heed with unseasonably high temperatures forecast for Summit County later in the week.

“I was walking up around (the Buffalo Mountain trailhead parking area) a couple of days ago, and there were as many as 20 people up there,” Pitman said. “Sometimes when it’s warm enough, (avalanches) can break on their own, and that’s the reason why skiers need to be up there fairly early. If they sink 2-3 inches, if they hear water below the snow, that’s a bad sign.”

As of Tuesday evening, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center rated the avalanche risk as considerable in Colorado’s northern mountains, which includes the Gore Range where Buffalo Mountain is located.

“In the next couple of days, people will have to use a lot of caution going into those couloirs,” Pitman said about Buffalo Mountain.

Blue River basin snowpack remains above average but not as hefty as last year

DILLON — Despite a drier spring than Summit County saw last year, the Blue River basin’s snowpack total is well above the seasonal average. Treste Huse, a senior hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Boulder, said the Blue River basin sits with 120% of the average for snow-water equivalent, or how much water is held in the snowpack. 

Huse said the water in the Blue River basin snowpack is well above average for this time of year. The snowpack in the basin holds about 19.3 inches of water, compared with the average 15.7 inches of water that the basin’s snowpack typically holds this time of year.

“We’re some of the luckier ones,” Huse said. “The northern part of the state, or the north-central part of the state especially, has gotten some of the better snowpack. There’s some areas pretty dry down in southern Colorado, so we’ve been fortunate to get this much snowpack for our water supply,” Huse said. “A lot of the storms have done better for the northern half of Colorado than the southern half, and that’s been the pattern.”

Huse said that the majority of storms this year have come from the northwest and have favored the north central mountains, missing the southern mountains. The U.S. Drought Monitor’s national drought summary, which was last recorded April 21, reports that severe drought has expanded over most of southern Colorado. The Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University’s April 21 update lists the eastern plains of Colorado as an area of concern and reported that snowmelt in the Four Corners region has “kicked into high gear” and is melting faster and earlier than normal.

“With not much precipitation in April, water supply forecasts for the late spring and summer are quickly declining,” the center reported.

Going over the year in precipitation amounts, Huse said Summit County had a good October, November was fairly dry and then precipitation accumulation amounts shot up in December. She reported that February into March was great for precipitation as February saw record snowfall amounts at some of the ski areas.

Precipitation has leveled off in April with small storms bringing little accumulation aside from one recent storm system that brought 1.4 inches of snow-water equivalent. Huse said the snowpack levels were above average going into April, but the recent storm helped bring the numbers even higher. 

“We’ve had a number of good winter storms that caused the snowpack to accumulate,” Huse said, adding that the north central mountains in particular have seen a lot of snowfall this year.

A map shows above-average snowpack throughout northern Colorado but less snow-water equivalent in southern Colorado, particularly in the Upper Rio Grand basin. The Blue River basin is within the Colorado River basin.
U.S. Department of Agriculture

The Blue River basin nears the end of the precipitation cycle toward the end of April. Huse said the weather service looks at yearly precipitation from July 1 through the end of June. She said that on April 17, Dillon’s total snowfall was around 102.1 inches while normal seasonal snowfall is 107 inches, putting Dillon just a few inches shy of the average snowfall total but ahead of average for mid-April. Huse said that at this time of year, the average snowfall amount in Dillon is 94.5 inches.

As she reported in early March, Huse said snowfall totals are above average but not abnormal. She said this is the 77th highest amount of snowfall for a year in Dillon out of 112 years. The highest annual snowfall Dillon has recorded was in 1935 when the town saw 227 inches of snow.

While water in the snowpack is above average this year, Huse said the late-season precipitation is not nearly as high as 2019, which was an anomaly. She reported that while the snow-water equivalent is around 19.3 inches this year, in 2019 the Blue River basin had around 21.2 inches.

With the Goose Pasture Tarn Dam reconstruction project on hold, Breckenridge staff said that the risk of dam failure is lower because runoff is expected to be less aggressive than last year. Huse confirmed this claim.

“Based on the current snowpack, it looks like the snowmelt runoff would be less but … it kind of depends,” Huse said.

Huse said the level of runoff depends on how much more precipitation the basin gets or if there is a rapid warming in temperatures, causing snow to melt quickly. She noted that 2019 precipitation was active into April, while 2020 snow-water equivalent dipped below 2019 levels beginning in February.

The forecast for the next two weeks shows high chances of near- to below-average precipitation and above-average temperatures, according to Huse. The National Weather Service predicts warm weather this week in Summit County with temperatures as high as 70 degrees in Dillon. Despite the unseasonably warm weather, Huse said she is not expecting any flooding.

“It does look like a warmup and some snowmelt runoff, but it’s still early in the season, so no flooding or anything expected,” Huse said.

As for precipitation over the next week, Huse said chances for much accumulation are slim. The higher elevations could see between half an inch to 1.25 inches, she predicted, with only one-tenth of an inch to half an inch of precipitation in the lower elevations of Summit County.

Graph comparing the current snow water equivalent to all other years from the historical record.
National Resources Conservation Service

CDOT urges motorists to stay home as snowstorm approaches

The Colorado Department of Transportation is urging motorists to avoid any unnecessary travel through the Interstate 70 mountain corridor over the coming days as a snowstorm moves into the area.

CDOT is advising drivers to heed the state’s stay-at-home order and keep off the roads with 5-9 inches of snow expected at the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnels and Vail Pass beginning on Thursday night and into Friday. In addition to snow, officials are also expecting high winds.

Motorists also should plan for potential lane closures on eastbound I-70 due to emergency roadwork.

One person caught, uninjured in Highland Bowl avalanche near Aspen

Avalanche triggered by a skier in the G8 zone of Highland Bowl on Friday.
Megan Harvey Bourke

A skier was caught in an avalanche Friday morning in Highland Bowl but uninjured after one of the biggest storms of the season dropped 16 inches of powder on Aspen area peaks Thursday, an official said.

The skier-triggered avalanche in the G8 zone was reported to emergency response officials between 9:50 and 9:55 a.m., said Pitkin County Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Sulek. Not long after, an MRA representative was able to speak  on the phone with one of the skiers at the Bowl, he said. 

“(He said) one person was caught in the slide and lost a ski, but was able to self-rescue,” Sulek said.

The skier was in a party of three or four others, he said, though no one else was caught in the slide zone.

The party was one of many hiking Highland Bowl, Aspen Highlands Ski Area and other area ski mountains on a sunny Friday morning after Thursday’s all-day, monster spring snowstorm blanketed both town and the high peaks with more snow at one time than the upper Roaring Fork Valley has seen all season.

“(The fresh powder) drew everybody,” Sulek said. “People going in to the backcountry need to be strongly advised that conditions are unstable.”

MRA volunteers are on “high alert” today because of the conditions.

The danger of avalanches Friday was “considerable” in Colorado’s central mountains, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

The mountains around Aspen picked up more than a foot of snow on Thursday, and an alert was sent Thursday afternoon warning of adverse conditions, including inside four Aspen area resorts, which have been closed since March 15 after the COVID-19 outbreak.

There has not been avalanche mitigation in the resort areas since March 14 because of the shutdown.

“Due to heavy snowfall and the recent storm cycle, it is strongly recommended that you limit your uphill and downhill skiing and riding,” the alert said. “Exercise caution and judgment on and below high angle terrain. … Please treat the ski areas with the same care you would in the backcountry and stay aware of your surroundings at all times. You assume all risks when entering the ski areas. Call 9-1-1 for emergencies and rescues.”

Read the story in full on Aspentimes.com

April snowstorm could bring up to 14 inches to mountains

DILLON — After weeks of generally warm, sunny weather, Summit County is getting hit with a bit of April snow. National Weather Service meteorologist Lisa Kriederman said the bulk of the week’s snow will begin Wednesday afternoon. 

“You may see a little rain mixed with snow (Wednesday) afternoon at the lower elevations, but that should quickly turn to snow,” Kriederman said.

Kriederman said the snow will continue through Thursday before diminishing Friday. Snow totals are forecast to be between 4-6 inches in the valleys and up to 14 inches at higher elevations. Kriederman said the storm will start to taper off Thursday night, though there still could be some accumulating snow overnight. 

The National Weather Service put out a winter storm warning from Thursday morning through Thursday night for the mountains of Summit County, the Mosquito Range and the Indian Peaks. Temperatures in Frisco on Thursday show a high of 36 degrees and a low of 18 on Thursday night. Kriederman said temperatures are expected to warm on Friday into the weekend.

“Temperatures should be warming into the mid-40s for the weekend, but there are still some chances each afternoon for snow showers to move in,” Kriederman said, adding that these showers will not bring much accumulation.

Kriederman added that there will be wind gusts up to 25 mph along ridgetops on Wednesday, but winds will diminish Wednesday night and be light Thursday. After this week’s storms, she said the next weather system is expected to come in on Monday or Tuesday of next week.

With fresh snow in the forecast, backcountry skiers and snowboarders are reminded that local ski areas are closed to all activity, including uphill access. Recreationists are asked to recreate locally and responsibly.

As storm rolls in, Forest Service closes Vail Pass trailhead and backcountry community reminds people to stay at home

DILLON — With a winter storm set to drop 4-10 inches of snow on Summit County through Saturday, local officials and the backcountry community are reminding Colorado residents not to travel to the mountains.

After mobs of skiers and snowboarders swarmed popular backcountry locations like Loveland and Vail passes last weekend, the U.S. Forest Service announced in a statement Friday afternoon that access to the Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area from Interstate 70 is closed.

The announcement of the Vail Pass trailhead closure was part of a larger statement from White River National Forest mountain sports program manager Roger Poirier that detailed changes and closures to comply with social distancing measures that aim to mitigate the spread of the new coronavirus. Poirier said most backcountry access points and trails in the White River National Forest will remain open, including access to the Vail Pass Recreation Area from other locations, such as Camp Hale. That said, Poirier added that typical patrol, grooming and parking lot plowing services conducted by the Forest Service have been discontinued throughout the White River National Forest.

“The Forest Service will be monitoring access points and adjusting management of these areas as appropriate to best meet social distancing direction and keep group sizes small,” Poirier said.

Poirier added that throughout the forest, developed recreation facilities — including rental cabins, toilets and group sites — are closed. All of the closures Poirier detailed are in effect through at least April 30.

State parks and National Forest Service land remains open, as pictured in Dillon on Friday, March 27, but all campgrounds and their associated facilities, such as toilets, cabins and group sites, are closed to the public until further notice.
Liz Copan / ecopan@summitdaily.com

The White River National Forest is the most visited national forest in the nation, encompassing 2.3 million acres and 11 ski resorts — including Breckenridge Ski Resort, Keystone Resort, Copper Mountain Resort and Arapahoe Basin Ski Area in Summit County — as well as 2,500 miles of trails. Earlier this month, the White River National Forest approved a first-of-its-kind amendment to Summit County ski area operating plans to prohibit uphill access on ski area terrain leased by the Forest Service.

Poirier said individuals with reservations on White River National Forest land will be notified via email or text message of any changes affecting their reservations. Poirier added the White River National Forest is conducting business and providing services virtually as well as continuing its field patrols. Those with questions can call the Dillon Ranger District in Silverthorne at 970-468-5400.

Also Friday, Dillon District ranger Bill Jackson joined forces with the heads of all four Summit County ski areas and Loveland Ski Area Chief Operating Officer Rob Goodell for a social-media video imploring the community to respect uphill access closures on national forest land.

Jackson was joined by Copper President and General Manager Dustin Lyman, Breckenridge Vice President and Chief Operating Officer John Buhler, Keystone Vice President and General Manager Jody Churich, A-Basin Chief Operating Officer Al Henceroth and Loveland’s Goodell in a video message explaining why they are asking people to “stay home and stay healthy.”

Ahead of the storm, the “stay home” message was one championed on social media and practiced in real life by Summit County locals such as “The Mayor of Pow Town” Gary Fondl of Frisco, among others. Fondl, who skied more than 200 days last season, echoed the “stay home” message by sharing photos from home rather than out in the forest. Led by influencers like longtime Summit local and esteemed backcountry guidebook author Fritz Sperry and Backcountry United founder Jon Miller, the conversation in online communities, such as the popular Colorado Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Facebook group, has gravitated around the stay-at-home message.

It’s a request also shared by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. On Friday, Friends of CAIC Executive Director Aaron Carlson asked people to “stay close to home.” The request came two days after a splitboard snowboarder triggered an avalanche above the western Summit County side of the Eisenhower Tunnel that buried the loop road above the tunnel portal, which was open at the time. No one was buried.

“Now is not the time to travel to Colorado’s mountain communities,” Carlson wrote in an email.