By Leo Wolfson, Cowboy State Daily
Wednesday was a historic day for the Wyoming Highway Patrol, and a day Lt. Kyle McKay said was like no other he’s experienced during his more than 20-year career working for the agency.
It’s a day he said he will remember for the rest of his career.
“It was an unprecedented snowstorm,” McKay said. “It’s something I don’t want to experience again.”
Over a 12-hour period Wednesday, the Wyoming Highway Patrol responded to more than 787 calls for service, 196 motorist assists and 104 crashes.
McKay said it wasn’t so much the quantity of snow received, but the combination of falling snow and gale-force winds that hammered the state.
“The toughest element was visibility,” he said.
McKay said poor visibility was what led to many people driving off the road under their own direction, as there weren’t many spots with loose snow or ice. At one point, McKay said he couldn’t see farther than the front hood of his squad car.
“They were driving off the road because they just couldn’t see,” he said, adding that many stranded motorists weren’t prepared for their misfortune.
Cold Adds To Problems
Also adding to their challenges, he said, was that the hydraulic fluid on many tow trucks would freezing up because of the ultra cold temperatures, taking a number of trucks off line that could have assisted stranded travelers.
McKay said the only benefit to the cold temperatures was that it kept the roads relatively dry.
A Horrific Crash
But the heinous conditions contributed to a fatal crash on Interstate 80 west of Rawlins at about 4:15 a.m. Wednesday.
The man killed was 29-year-old Tyeler Harris of Saratoga, an EMT/ER technician from Memorial Hospital of Carbon County. Harris leaves a widow and three young children behind.
“It’s a tragic event for a first responder family,” McKay said. “It’s just horrible.”
McKay said he was not aware of any other fatal crashes Wednesday.
Super Fast Deep Freeze
One of the most astonishing aspects of the day was the rapid plunge in temperatures seen across the state, with many locations seeing record drops.
McKay said he saw the plummet happen before his eyes.
“I was watching the clouds come up over the hills and they started engulfing Cheyenne in a matter of minutes,” he said. “It was a remarkable one-time event, just witnessing the power of mother nature.”
A resident of Wyoming of 46 years, McKay said he believes the state used to receive heavier, more dense snowfall, but now receives lighter snow and higher winds, creating possibly more dangerous driving conditions.
“This is a perfect reminder of how things can dramatically change from one type of weather to another in the state of Wyoming,” he said.
McKay said road conditions will not improve substantially Thursday, with high wind gusts and temperatures still well below zero throughout the state. He said the persistent wind will eventually create slick spots on roads that pose a real risk to drivers.
The stretch of I-80 between Rock Springs and Rawlins was still closed Thursday, and McKay said it is not projected to open until evening or later. There are other major closures on U.S. 287 outside Rawlins and U.S. 85 between Torrington and Lusk.
The stretch of I-25 between Cheyenne and Colorado was closed on Wednesday night because of blowing snow, but has since reopened.
McKay said those traveling through Wyoming, and especially people visiting from out-of-state, should take extreme caution over the holiday weekend.
Due to the extreme cold temperatures, getting stuck could be a life-threatening event for those unprepared for being caught in a worst-case scenario.
“For a person who has never been to Wyoming … getting stranded could cause severe panic,” he said.
Although temperatures are expected to warm up by Saturday, McKay expects this increase to also come with an extra dose of wind. Wind speeds are expected to reach 26 mph on Christmas Day.
He also said people should have patience when major roads like I-80 do open, as they are typically clogged with semitrucks for the first hour or so after reopening.
“A lot of times when we open roads, we have to shut them down an hour later because of a jackknifed semi,” he said.
And when drivers do get back on the road, McKay encourages them to take their time in where they’re going.
“It will take a whole lot longer to get where you’re going if you crash, or you won’t get there at all,” he said.