By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily
Gusty winds, cold temperatures and blowing snow led to multiple accidents and closures across southern Wyoming on Friday as motorists on Interstate 80 waited out the weather as a winter storm gusted through the state’s southwestern corner.
In the 24 hours between noon Thursday and noon Friday, the Wyoming Highway Patrol reported 91 weather-related accidents between Rawlins and the Utah state line alone, according to Sgt. Jeremy Beck, WHP public relations spokesperson.
To his knowledge, Beck said none of the accidents involved any fatalities.
As of Friday afternoon, all of the eastbound lanes of 1-80 between Evanston and Cheyenne were on rolling closures with an estimated opening time of 19 to 21 hours.
All lanes in both directions of the interstate between Rawlins and Laramie were closed Friday afternoon, with drivers being diverted to hotels, truck stops and businesses in neighboring cities.
The purpose behind implementing rolling closures is to ease the burden of stopped traffic on cities and towns along the 1-80 corridor.
The technique allows stranded drivers to get to the next location for greater access to the parking, fuel, hotel, restaurants and other services when a particular town hits peaks capacity.
The rolling closures were effective Friday, said Jordan Achs, WYDOT senior public affairs specialist, who added feedback so far has been positive.
“We don’t want people to be stuck without a place to stay or be without resources during long- duration closures,” she said.
WYDOT and Wyoming Highway Patrol work together to reach out to the hotels and businesses in these towns and cities to monitor resources. Friday’s storm was pretty localized, Achs noted, with a heavy amount of fallen snow being blown by heavy winds at higher elevations.
Gusts between Laramie and Rawlins were measured at 70 mph.
Over the past day, the southern border has received 5 to 10 inches of snow with some spots getting as much as 13 inches, according to meteorologist Don Day.
Despite the weather conditions, some drivers had blown past the snow gates closing the interstate and gotten stuck.
Achs didn’t know how many vehicles had done so, but she did say rescuing the vehicles and getting the drivers to safety has diverted resources from other tasks.
She added that ignoring a snow gate comes with a $750 fine.
“It can be frustrating to commercial truck drivers,” she said. “But these closures are for their health and safety.”
Waiting it out
Mark Telkamp wasn’t expecting to go anywhere too soon Friday afternoon.
The jet fuel truck driver for MG Oil/Heartland was parked at the Love’s Travel Stop in Green River and settling in for a long wait while WYDOT snowplow drivers work on clearing 1-80.
This was his second stop of the day. He had been parked down the road at Rock Springs for the 13 hours waiting out the storm and made it about 45 miles before he was stopped due to interstate closures.
It’s just part of the job, Telkamp said. He’s been trucking in Wyoming for the past 25 years and being shut down by weather is par for the course.
“I feel resigned,” he said, “but it doesn’t mean it’s fun.”
Mind the plows
A reported 15% shortage of snow plow drivers this year was having no impact on the department’s work on Friday, Achs said.
She added since the storm is limited to the state’s southwestern corner, the department is having no trouble meeting staffing needs with available workers.
In the case of significant snow events, the department will move resources to areas most affected.
That said, snow plows in general have had a rough couple of years, with with more hit by drivers in the past two years that at any other time in the department’s history, Achs said. She didn’t have numbers readily available but she did encourage drivers to stay back and give snowplows room to work.
“Sometimes plows can create their own whiteouts,” she said. “Please give them space to do their job.”
Up-to-date road closures can be found on WYDOT.