A storm bringing the first heavy snows of autumn to a large portion of the Rockies and western plains crippled parts of Colorado and Wyoming Wednesday, forcing road closures and sending students home from school as more than 2 feet piled up with much more expected.
The slow-moving system socked Denver commuters with treacherous driving conditions — a strong punch for residents who were sporting short sleeves just a couple of weeks ago. Visibility fell below a quarter-mile in many areas, and forecasters warned the storm would linger.
Western Nebraskans were already taking action as snow fell. Chadron State College closed its main campus and satellite locations through Thursday, and other schools in the area also shut down. Forecasters said 8 inches of snow had fallen in Whiteclay, near the northern border with South Dakota.
The storm was expected to be the biggest snowmaker to hit Colorado's Front Range in October since 1997, said Byron Louis, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Boulder, Colo.
Up to 18 inches of snow was forecast in Denver and as much as 4 feet was possible in the Colorado mountains. Cheyenne was expected to get at least 14 inches before the storm moves off.
The National Weather Service predicted similar amounts for a wide area of Nebraska and Colorado plains. The storm also brought snow to northern Utah's Wasatch Front.
Some schools closed pre-emptively
The storm was even more unusual in parts of western Colorado. In Grand Junction, where about 2 inches fell, it was the heaviest snowfall this early in the season since 1995, said National Weather Service hydrologist Bryon Lawrence. Cold Creek in the southwest had recorded 28 inches by midafternoon.
Some schools in Colorado and Wyoming closed pre-emptively, including those in a Cheyenne district. And Colorado State University in Fort Collins sent students and staff home around midafternoon. A Colorado Springs homeless shelter decided to allow people who have been kicked out for breaking rules to return because of the weather.
Wyoming state government shut down its offices in the Cheyenne area due to weather early in the afternoon.
Most of the roughly 70 accidents in Wyoming happened on Interstate 80 before the Wyoming Department of Transportation closed the highway between Cheyenne and Laramie early in the day. Nine crashes caused injuries but no one was killed.
"People are just not slowing down enough," department spokesman Bruce Burrows said.
The National Weather Service in Wyoming warned whiteout condition would last through Thursday morning.
Heavy snow was blamed for a multicar pileup on U.S. Highway 6 in Denver, and the weather closed two northern Colorado highways near Wyoming. Colorado's interstate highways remained open, with some closures on mountain passes.
Denver airport reports delays
Denver International Airport reported some delays and asked fliers to call first to avoid being stranded at the airport. Some airlines told travelers they would waive or reduce fees for changing flight tickets because of the storm.
Meanwhile, wind was a concern in some prairie areas of Wyoming.
"When we start getting those wind gusts on Thursday — gusts up to 40 mph — it's going to create some blowing and drifting snow and that's going to cause some problems," said Dan Deal, with the Weather Service in Cheyenne. Drifts several feet deep and wind chills as low as 10 degrees were forecast.
The system kicked up heavy winds and dust Tuesday in Nevada, Arizona and California.
Winds gusting through Southern California forced a commuter train line to shut down and knocked a tree onto a car, but no serious injuries have been reported.
In San Diego County, wind toppled a tree onto a car in San Marcos but the couple inside escaped serious injury.
The National Weather Service warned of the possibility of further gusts up to 50 mph through Thursday morning in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. Fire danger warnings were up in some areas.
Back in Wyoming, the storm brought some big rig truckers to a halt.
"The smart thing is to just shut it down and call it a day," said Donnel Farrow of Willingboro, N.J. Farrow was hauling mail from Pennsylvania to Salt Lake City but pulled over his rig at a truck stop just east of Cheyenne, Wyo., after a rough drive across Nebraska.