Colorado’s much-anticipated snowstorm finally here and it’s packing a punch

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Colorado has for the past week braced for one of the most anticipated snowstorms in decades. After a slow start, by Saturday afternoon it started living up to its potential to dump several feet of snow in places.

Along the Front Range, a mist turned to drizzle by noon and then by afternoon to snow, which is forecast to continue through Sunday. The worst of the storm is expected to impact travel, threaten power lines and increase the risk of avalanches in the mountains Saturday night through Sunday when snowfall rates could reach 1 to 3 inches an hour.

The advance of the storm prompted a slew of warnings, closures and emergency measures to help keep everyone from motorists to backcountry users safe.

Snowstorm central:A roundup of forecast updates, preparation information and more

Gov. Jared Polis declared a state of disaster emergency and authorized the deployment of about 50 Colorado National Guard members to provide search and rescue help as well as assist with shelter needs to motorists.

People were strongly advised to only travel for emergency and essential reasons over the weekend and to avoid parking along streets to help crews remove snow.

More than 1,800 flights were cancelled Saturday at Denver International Airport by early Saturday afternoon and more than 1,500 flights Sunday were already cancelled by then. 

Parts of Rocky Mountain National Park and some Larimer County Open Spaces and Fort Collins Natural Areas were closed over the weekend.

The Colorado Department of Transportation sent a Tweet on Saturday morning that its fleet of 950 snow removal vehicles was already out in force, focusing on Interstates 25 and 70.

Live updates from Saturday:Rain, snow mix begins falling across Fort Collins area

Fort Collins Streets Superintendent Larry Schneider said the city has 24 snow removal vehicles at the ready with crews working rotating 12-hour shifts and private contractors for road and sidewalk snow removal on standby.

Snowfall forecasts wavered at times over the last week as meteorologists tried to figure out via varying computer models where the low pressure fueling the storm would set up. It ended up near a location centered in the southeast part of the state, which placed the snow bull’s-eye on the northern Front Range and foothills up to Cheyenne, Wyoming.

That forecast continued Saturday with Fort Collins expected to receive 18 to 24 inches of snow and Estes Park up to 4 feet. The Cameron Peak Fire burn scar could see 2 to 4 feet, causing erosion and debris flow concerns. 

“We are already seeing erosion and flooding sediment going across roads or filling culverts,” Lori Hodges, director of the Larimer County Office of Emergency Management, said last week. “You add 4 feet of snow from the weekend that melts quickly and it could get pretty bad.”

Stocking up:Shovels, snow blowers, staples in big demand as Colorado winter storm looms

Karen Morris, general manager at Estes Park Resort, said the snow forecast impacted business. She said the resort was nearly sold out this weekend but that cancellations reduced occupancy over the weekend to about 65%.

“I have lived in the mountains all my life and so this is what happens when you live at 7,500 feet,” she said. “Everything is positive because we need the snow. All you have to do is remember last year’s fires. This is all part of Mother Nature. It would be nice if we could get it in smaller bits over more time, but we will take what we can get even if it is one big bite.”

Many ski resorts along the Continental Divide were expected to receive 1 to 2 feet of snow. While welcome news for the ski areas, it was a concern for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Center forecaster Brian Lazar said the Front Range Zone, which roughly includes the mountains east of the Continental Divide from the Colorado-Wyoming border to south of Denver, will likely be under an avalanche warning Sunday.

Colorado has seen 11 avalanche deaths this winter, nearly twice the annual average. Lazar said avalanche conditions in the backcountry will be most dangerous the first couple days after the snow settles before gradually becoming more stable later next week.

“People will want to get out and enjoy the fresh snowfall, but new snowfall coincides with an increase in avalanche danger,” he said. “We are asking people to check the forecast and adjust their travel plans before going out. We don’t want to see any more avalanche fatalities.”

Reporter Miles Blumhardt looks for stories that impact your life. Be it news, outdoors, sports — you name it, he wants to report it. Have a story idea? Contact him at milesblumhardt@coloradoan.com or on Twitter @MilesBlumhardt. Support his work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.