Fierce winter weather presented a monumental challenge for many holiday travelers throughout the Thanksgiving weekend, as several inches of new snow combined with hurricane-force winds, combined to create deplorable driving conditions throughout Park County.
But even so, Mother Nature’s best punch was no match at all when pitted against the compassion and ingenuity demonstrated by Fairplay residents when about 800 motorists suddenly found themselves hopelessly stranded on U.S. Highway 285 and in Fairplay Nov. 29-30.
Here in Colorado, especially in Park County, virtually all of us drive in blizzard-like conditions from time to time. And normally, four-wheel drive, studded snow tires and years of winter weather driving experience is enough to get us from place to place.
On the other hand, there is the altogether different reality of driving through South Park on Highway 285 during a ground blizzard like the one that occurred Thanksgiving weekend.
A dusting of new snow Thanksgiving night, followed by winds in excess of 85 miles per hour the next morning, resulted in a thick sheet of ice blanketing Highway 285 that stopped even the hardened traditional winter vehicles cold in their tracks.
The highway was completely closed from Kenosha Pass to Fairplay mid-day Friday.
The result was a 55-mile long traffic jam that originated in Fairplay, continued across South Park and over Kenosha Pass, and at its worst, through Bailey and Pine Junction and into Jefferson County and Conifer.
The situation was exasperated by the closing of Interstate 70 in both directions due to rock slides on Nov. 29, effectively eliminating vital east-west and west-east passages across the state.
Meanwhile, southbound motorists on Highway 285 who cleared Kenosha Pass and descended into the expanses of South Park found themselves in the most unenviable of positions.
With nothing to break the howling winds, new and already existing snow created classic ground blizzard conditions. Visibility was not just poor, but in most cases, nonexistent.
The winds were so violent, and traction was so poor, that many motorists reported having been literally blown off the road.
Even if drivers on the highway through South Park had had some degree of visibility, they still had no traction suited for road surfaces that were comparable to those of an ice skating rink.
And even if those motorists had had visibility and traction, they had nowhere to go because cars were strewn across and off the road ahead and behind them, creating total gridlock in all directions.
On Friday night, 299 stranded motorists spent the night in Fairplay.
For about a two-hour period on Saturday, the highway was re-opened. That caused another situation much like the one that occurred Friday night, except worse. Saturday night, 465 stranded holiday travelers spent the night in Fairplay.
According to Park County Sheriff Tom McGraw, the decision to re-open the highway was made by the Colorado Department of Transportation.
“That was one of several learning experiences we took from the weekend,” McGraw said. “We need to improve communication with CDOT, because the highway was opened back up Saturday for a couple of hours when it shouldn’t have been.”
McGraw said a number of Park County entities would be meeting later this week to debrief about the weekend’s events.
“The Sheriff’s Office was extremely grateful to the community for pitching in the way it did, as well as those in surrounding communities,” McGraw said. “But we need to be more prepared when this sort of thing happens, because it will happen again at some point.”
Dire circumstances, difficult questions
The sheer volume of stranded cars and motorists and the inability to reach and assist them for long periods of time would have constituted a local emergency in any weather conditions.
But with wind chill factors hovering around -30 degrees, and visibility about as poor as could be imagined, the health and safety of hundreds of stranded motorists quickly became a dire priority for authorities, emergency response personnel and concerned citizens in and around Fairplay.
Action needed to be taken quickly, and it was no understatement to say that hundreds of lives were at risk. A perfect meteorological and circumstantial storm had occurred to create a complicated local emergency for which no clear answers were readily available.
For example, if four-wheel drive vehicles equipped with snow and studded tires were of no use, then how would stranded parties be reached?
Once rescued, to what location would those parties be transported? With Fairplay’s limited number of hotel rooms already booked, where would the stranded motorists be housed overnight? With a limited number of restaurants, and few if any eating establishments open overnight, how would the rescued motorists be fed while stranded in Fairplay for an indefinite period of time?
Park County residents spring into action
Fortunately, a number of concerned citizens throughout Park County, as well as a variety of Fairplay-based charitable organizations, were ready and willing to assist in all facets of the massive rescue effort.
Thanks in part to the quick action taken by the following entities, a seemingly impossible list of tasks were identified and solved, one by one:
The Hartsel Fire Department pitched in by operating Park County’s tracked vehicle to rescue stranded motorists.
Jefferson County reported to the scene with a snow cap.
Park County ambulances were utilized to shuttle rescued parties around Fairplay.
A group of about 32 volunteers with the Salvation Army, under the direction of Chairman David Kintz Jr., served in a variety of ways such as feeding and housing stranded parties, including going door to door for blankets.
South Park Community Church and South Park Christian Chapel, along with food from the Salvation Army, the South Park School District and the South Park Food Bank, helped to feed almost 800 people.
The South Park School District and the South Park Community Center housed most of the stranded visitors, but all of them were transferred to the high school when electricity went out at the community center Saturday night.
“We had about 32 volunteers, and then a core of about twelve volunteers who concentrated on cooking to get everyone fed, and they were absolutely amazing,” Kintz said. “It honestly choked me up to see how the community responded.”
Kintz mentioned that Cindy Bear, who serves as principal at Edith Teter Elementary School, did a phenomenal job of making schools and school resources available to visitors throughout the crisis.
Ellen Kely, a 15-year resident of Salida, described her experiences traveling through South Park Friday before Highway 285 closed, and Saturday, at the time of its second closing.
“We slipped through from Salida to Denver Friday, and spent Friday night there,” Kely said.
“We came back into Fairplay off of Hoosier Pass Saturday night, and we were stranded there because of Highway 285 being closed. We stayed at South Park High School all night.
“Our experience at the high school was absolutely amazing. It was unbelievable the kindness and generosity the volunteers from Fairplay showed to us. I called them our earth angels. Every time more people would pour into the school, they would hit the streets again going door-to-door for blankets.
“I think people around town were literally pulling blankets off their own beds to make sure we had enough. It was just so impressive the way the people in that community opened their arms to us. It was truly amazing and left an impression on many of us.”
Fittingly, on a weekend designated for giving thanks, the citizens of South Park gave weary travelers much to be grateful for when faced with the perfect storm of 2019.